Omicron is “not the same disease we were seeing a year ago” and high Covid death rates in the UK are “now history”, a leading immunologist has said.
Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University and the government’s life sciences adviser, said that although hospital admissions had increased in recent weeks as Omicron spreads through the population, the disease “appears to be less severe and many people spend a relatively short time in hospital”. Fewer patients were needing high-flow oxygen and the average length of stay was down to three days, he said.
A number of scientists have criticised the government’s decision not to introduce further Covid restrictions in England before New Year’s Eve, with some describing it as “the greatest divergence between scientific advice and legislation” since the start of the pandemic.
They have expressed concern that while the Omicron variant appears to be milder, it is highly transmissible, meaning hospital numbers and deaths could rise rapidly without intervention.
The NHS Providers chief executive, Chris Hopson, said it was still unclear what would happen when infection rates in older people started to rise. “We’ve had a lot of intergenerational mixing over Christmas, so we all are still waiting to see, are we going to see a significant number of increases in terms of the number of patients coming into hospital with serious Omicron-related disease,” he told BBC Breakfast.
NHS staff absences caused by having to isolate over Omicron are also causing strain on the health service, with experts predicting up to 40% of staff in London could be off in a “worst case scenario”.
“We’re now seeing a significant increase in the level of staff absences, and quite a few of our chief executives are saying that they think that that’s probably going to be a bigger problem and a bigger challenge for them than necessarily the number of people coming in who need treatment because of Covid,” said Hopson.
George Eustice, the environment secretary, said the government was keeping the level of Covid hospital admissions under “very close review”.
He acknowledged that infection rates from the new Omicron variant were rising but said there was evidence it was not resulting in the same level of hospital admissions as previous waves.
“There is early encouragement from what we know in South Africa that you have fewer hospitalisations and that the number of days that they stay in hospital if they do go into hospital is also lower than in previous variants,” he told the BBC.
“At the moment we don’t think that the evidence supports any more interventions beyond what we have done. But obviously we have got to keep it under very close review, because if it is the case that we started to see a big increase in hospitalisations then we would need to act further.”
John Bell told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The horrific scenes that we saw a year ago of intensive care units being full, lots of people dying prematurely, that is now history, in my view, and I think we should be reassured that that’s likely to continue.”
He said that over the course of multiple waves of Covid, including Delta and Omicron, “the incidence of severe disease and death from this disease has basically not changed since we all got vaccinated”.
He added that quiet streets over the past couple of weeks showed people had been “pretty responsible” with regard to protecting themselves from the virus.
Speaking after the government’s announcement on Monday that they would not be introducing any more Covid restrictions this year, Simon Clarke, an associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, warned that the latest data was incomplete.
He cautioned that the latest case figures did not include data for samples taken between Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, and that it would become clear how the virus had moved through the population over the Christmas period in the coming week or so.
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“While nobody wants to live under tighter controls, the public need to realise that if we end up with a significant problem of hospitalisations and mass sickness, it will be worse than if authorities had acted earlier,” he said.
Speaking on Tuesday, Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said people with Covid should eventually be allowed to “go about their normal lives” as they would with a common cold.
“This is a disease that’s not going away. Ultimately, we’re going to have to let people who are positive with Covid go about their normal lives as they would do with any other cold,” he told BBC Breakfast. “If the self-isolation rules are what’s making the pain associated with Covid, then we need to do that perhaps sooner rather than later. Maybe not quite just yet.
“Covid is only one virus of a family of coronaviruses, and the other coronaviruses throw off new variants typically every year or so, and that’s almost certainly what’s going to happen with Covid. It will become effectively just another cause of the common cold.
“Once we’re past Easter, perhaps, then maybe we should start to look at scaling back, depending on, of course, what the disease is at that time.”