Covid infections in the UK fell again today and hospitalisations stayed flat as pressure grew on the Prime Minister to release plans on how the country can safely live with the virus.
UK Health Security Agency bosses logged 142,224 positive tests, marking a week-on-week drop for the fifth day in a row. Infections in London — the first region to be battered by Omicron — plunged to their lowest levels in nearly a month, with rates now dropping in over-60s.
Another 77 deaths were registered within 28 days of testing positive, marking a 83 per cent rise on the figure last Monday. But that figure only covered fatalities in England due to the holiday, and the overall trend has barely risen ever since the ultra-transmissible variant took off.
Meanwhile, hospitalisations rose by just three per cent in a week, with the trend having finally flattened off after three weeks of steep increases. Rates in London fell again.
Both the government and NHS leaders are increasingly confident that Omicron will not overwhelm services, and even experts today claimed that there was light at the end of the tunnel as ministers admitted Britain is on a path to ‘living with’ the virus.
MailOnline analysis shows daily Covid deaths are currently running at less than half the rate expected in a bad flu year, in another sign the UK is finally on the brink of beating the pandemic.
Dr David Nabarro, of the World Health Organisation, said coronavirus would pose a very difficult situation for the next three months ‘at least’ but insisted ‘we can see the end in sight’. Meanwhile, Professor Graham Medley, No10’s chief modeller, warned Covid ‘can’t be an emergency forever’ as he said ‘Government decisions’ would need to be made about scrapping mass testing and vaccinations.
They are the latest scientists to suggest that Britain is moving into a new phase of the coronavirus crisis now that it appears increasingly likely the NHS will cope without restrictions. Dr Clive Dix, the former chief of the UK’s vaccine taskforce, yesterday called for a return to a ‘new normality’ and for Covid to be treated like the flu.
There are also calls for routine testing to be scrapped to put an end to the self-isolation crisis plaguing businesses and vital services now that Omicron is causing little or no symptoms for most. Writing in the Mail today, Professor Angus Dalgleish, an oncologist at St George’s University, said mass screening amounted to ‘national self-harm’.
Boris Johnson today admitted the Government is ‘looking at’ cutting the self-isolation period again, as he hailed the country’s ‘great progress’ against the fourth wave. But he also warned that the NHS is still under significant pressure and urged people to get booster jabs.
On a visit to a vaccine clinic in Uxbridge, he poured cold water on rumours that lateral flow tests may stop being free soon, saying they will stay ‘as long as necessary’. And he tempered optimism by stressing that ministers will follow the ‘science’ on whether quarantine can be cut again from seven days without causing another deadly spike in infections.
In a round of interviews earlier, Housing Secretary Michael Gove said the UK is ‘moving to a situation’ where it is ‘possible to say we can live with Covid and that the pressure on the NHS and on vital public services is abating’. However, he stressed ‘we are not there yet’ and dismissed complaints that dire warnings about the possibility of huge numbers of deaths had been ‘scaremongering’.
Mr Johnson is rumoured to be drawing up a fresh strategy for the transition away from restrictions, which would be implemented by March. There is speculation that it could see lateral flow tests withdrawn for non-high risk situations as well as shorter isolation.
Tory MPs have already piled pressure on No10 to set out their vision for dealing with Covid, with business leaders saying the current curbs are ‘really, really tough’ on the hospitality sector. Clive Watson, chairman of the City Pub Group, said: ‘Why do people who work in hospitals or work in retail go to work, but office workers are exempted from going to work?’
In other developments today:
- Data shows Covid infections in London have ticked up in under-30s since New Year’s Eve, but have started to fall in over-60s;
- More NHS cancer patients will be treated in private hospitals under a deal struck with the sector to ‘safeguard’ against the staff absence crisis and rising Covid admissions;
- Clive Watson, chairman of the City Pub Group, questioned the continuing work-from-home guidance and said the review of measures due by January 26 is a ‘very good opportunity’ to change them;
- Mr Johnson has insisted he and Chancellor Rishi Sunak are looking at ways of easing the cost of living crisis as the economy struggles to recover from Covid.
To work out flu deaths, the UK Health Security Agency — formerly Public Health England — estimates them using a statistical model, which looks at the prevalence of flu and excess winter fatalities. The cumulative number of fatalities was estimated to be in the region of 15,000 in 2016/17, with about 300 people dying every day at the peak. In 2017/18, during the Aussie flu outbreak, a total of 22,000 people were killed by influenza, with in excess of 400 dying per day at the worst of the epidemic. But in 2018/19 just 4,000 were estimated to have died to the virus, with just tens of people dying per day at the peak
How flu and Covid compare to other leading causes of death: Cancer is the biggest killer, taking around 166,000 lives every year, followed by dementia and heart disease. Covid has killed More than 150,000 Britons since the pandemic took off but it is expected to settle down and become an endemic illness in the coming years
On a visit to a vaccination clinic in Uxbridge, Boris Johnson poured cold water on rumours that lateral flow tests could stop being free soon, saying they will stay ‘as long as necessary’
Boris Johnson is said to be drawing up a new strategy for the transition away from restrictions, which would be implemented by March
In a round of interviews this morning, Housing Secretary Michael Gove said the UK is ‘moving to a situation’ where it is ‘possible to say that we can live with Covid and that the pressure on the NHS and on vital public services is abating’
UK-wide data shows 142,224 positive tests were registered in the last 24-hours, down 9.8 per cent on last Monday when 157,758 were recorded. Daily confirmed cases have been above 100,000 since December 20.
Covid is now killing half as many people per day as a bad flu year as experts say pandemic will shift to endemic after Omicron wave subsides
Daily Covid deaths are currently running at less than half the rate expected in a bad flu year, MailOnline analysis suggests as experts claim the UK is finally on the brink of beating the pandemic.
There are growing calls for No10 to learn to live with Covid rather than focus on halting the spread of the virus now there is such a big disconnect between infections and deaths.
Right now just 130 people are dying from the coronavirus every day in England at what is believed to be the peak of the Omicron outbreak, compared to 1,300 last January before vaccines were widely available.
Daily deaths have barely moved since the start of autumn, despite infection rates more than quadrupling over the same time following the emergence of the ultra-transmissible variant.
For comparison, Government estimates show there were more than 400 influenza deaths per day at the peak of the last bad flu season in 2017/18, and almost 300 daily fatalities the previous year. Just like this winter, hospitals were forced to cancel routine operations and patients were told to steer clear of A&E units during both of those outbreaks.
Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert from the University of East Anglia, said the figures showed that the burden of Covid is now comparable to flu. He told MailOnline Covid would ‘almost certainly’ get weaker every year as people develop natural immunity and eventually become a common cold that kills only the very vulnerable further down the line.
‘Once we’re past this Omicron peak — excluding another unexpected variant that reverses all of our progress — then we’ll be close to the point of endemic,’ Professor Hunter added.
His comments come after Dr Clive Dix, the former chief of the UK’s vaccine taskforce, called for a return to a ‘new normality’ and for Covid to be treated like the flu now that they have a similar death rate.
MailOnline analysis shows the UK’s case fatality rate — the proportion of confirmed infections that end in death — has shrunk 21-fold from 3 per cent last winter to 0.15 per cent at the end of December. For comparison, seasonal influenza is thought to have a case-fatality rate of around 0.1 per cent.
Meanwhile, 77 deaths within 28 days of a positive test were registered, up 83.3 per cent on the 42 fatalities last Monday, when only England and Scotland shared Covid death data.
Hospitalisation data shows 2,332 infected patients were admitted across the UK last Tuesday, the latest date figures are available for, an increase of just 3.3 per cent on the same day one week earlier. For comparison, 4,583 patients were admitted in a single day at the peak of the second wave last winter.
And 18,665 infected patients were in hospitals across the UK on Friday, less than half of the 39,254 peak last winter.
Up-to-date figures for England show admissions remained flat for the fifth day in a row, rising just 2.4 per cent in the week to Saturday. And 307 Covid patients were admitted across London on the same day, dropping for the eighth day in a row.
Both hospitalisations and deaths lag weeks behind the trend in infection numbers due to the time it takes for someone to become seriously unwell after catching the virus.
Meanwhile, 62 per cent of over-12s across the UK are now triple-jabbed, while 83 per cent have had two doses and 90.4 per cent have had at least one injection.
The latest data comes after Dr Nabarro, the WHO’s special envoy on Covid, told Sky News that we need to ‘respect’ the virus but start transitioning to something closer to normal.
‘I’m afraid we are moving through the marathon but there’s no actual way to say that we’re at the end – we can see the end in sight, but we’re not there.
‘And there’s going to be some bumps before we get there.
‘And I can’t tell you how bad they’re going to be, but I can at least tell you what I’m expecting.
‘First of all, this virus is continuing to evolve – we have Omicron but we’ll get more variants.
‘Secondly, it really is affecting the whole world. And, whilst health services in Western Europe are just about coping, in many other parts of the world, they are completely overwhelmed.
‘And thirdly, it’s really clear that there’s no scope for major restrictions in any country, particularly poor countries.
‘People have just got to keep working and so there are some very tough choices for politicians right now.
‘It’s going to be difficult for the next three months at least.’
Asked about a suggestion that there could be coronavirus surges two or three times a year, Dr Nabarro added: ‘The way this virus is behaving, and has behaved really since we first met it, is that it builds up and then surges quite dramatically, and then it comes down again, and then surges again about every three or four months.
‘It’s difficult to use past behaviour to predict the future. And I don’t like doing that too much.
‘But I would agree that the pattern, I think, that is going to happen with this virus is continued surges, and living with Covid means being able to prepare for these surges and to react and really quickly when they occur.
‘Life can go on, we can get the economy going again in many countries, but we just have to be really respectful of the virus and that means having really good plans in place for dealing with the surges.’
Meanwhile, Professor Medley, an expert in infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine at chair of the SPI-M modelling group that feeds into SAGE, said that when Covid becomes an endemic disease, the Government will be able to make ‘cost-effective decisions about how it’s going to manage the disease to improve public health, rather than manage the disease to try and reduce its own risk of hospitals being overcrowded’.
Asked whether that could mean an end to free mass testing and free mass vaccinations, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘The decisions that the Government makes about vaccinating, for example against measles, are based upon decisions in terms of public health, but also the costs.
‘And I think to some extent that approach will become more and more likely as we go forward. Vaccines are really the things that are changing the landscape, both in terms of public health and in terms of decision making.
‘As ever, Government has to make a decision, balancing all these different views and different industries’ perspectives, to come up with what it feels to be the correct policy.
‘So we have an annual vaccination programme against influenza for example, we have childhood vaccination programmes against many other diseases, but we don’t, for example, vaccinate against chickenpox, and that decision is (made by) Government based on looking at all the aspects of the decision.’
Pressed on free tests, Prof Medley said: ‘I think that the value of the moment of getting free tests is that it does allow people to manage their risks. And we have seen since July, the number of submissions was roughly constant, sort of just under 1,000 a day, up until the beginning of December and that can really only come about if people are managing their risks and the free diagnostics have enabled that.’
Asked whether the Omicron wave is over in London but not elsewhere in the country, Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I think that at the moment the testing capacity issues, and the Christmas and the new year, mean that we can’t really rely on cases to tell us what’s going to happen exactly.
‘At the moment we are seeing a relatively high number of admissions, how long that continues, whether that goes up or goes down, I think is unknown at the moment.’
Official figures suggest London’s Covid outbreak may no longer be shrinking after infections have been rising among the under-60s since New Year’s Eve, with rates highest among adults in their 20s and 30s. But cases appear to be dropping among the over-60s in a hopeful sign pressure could ease further on the NHS, with London’s hospitals already seeing a downturn in admissions.
Professor Medley said the Omicron virus itself is ‘less severe’ than Delta but it is ‘just as threatening’ due to its transmissibility.
Pressed on whether the nation was moving away from a situation where Covid was an ’emergency’, Professor Medley said: ‘I think that that transition is absolutely true. It can’t be an emergency forever.
‘So at some point it will have to stop being an emergency but that is likely to be a phase out rather than an active point in time where somebody can declare the epidemic over.
‘It’s going to fade out and disappear much more slowly than that I think.’
But the Prime Minister insisted ‘Omicron is still out there, it is incredibly contagious’. ‘We’ve got to make sure that we see off Omicron, we are making great progress,’ he said.
A total of 25 out of 137 NHS Trusts in England have declared critical incidents — or 17.5 per cent. Above are the trusts that have publicly announced they have declared these incidents to help them manage winter pressures
‘The number of people who have been boosted is 36 million, 90 per cent of over-50s have been done but there are still millions who need to do it.
Catching a common cold may protect you from getting Covid, another study finds
Catching the common cold could also protect against Covid, yet more research has suggested.
Ever since the start of the pandemic, experts have speculated other coronaviruses — which tend to cause runny noses and sore throats — could offer some cross-reactive immunity.
But new real-world evidence has uncovered the ‘clearest evidence’ yet that immunity induced by colds can help fight off Covid.
People with higher levels of T cells from other seasonal coronaviruses were less likely to get infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid.
T cells are a key part of the immune system, and hunt down invading pathogens and stop them replicating within the body.
Imperial College London scientists studied 52 people who lived with someone who had tested positive for the virus. Half caught the virus, while the others managed to ward it off.
They took blood samples from the volunteers within days of being exposed to SARS-CoV-2, allowing researchers to determine their T cell levels.
Household contacts who did not test positive had ‘significantly higher levels’ of pre-existing coronavirus-fighting T cells, on average.
These T cells ‘targeted internal proteins within the SARS-CoV-2 virus rather than the spike protein to protect against infection’, the team said.
Professor Ajit Lalvani, one of the researchers, said: ‘Our study provides the clearest evidence to date that T cells induced by common cold coronaviruses play a protective role against SARS-CoV-2 infection.’
But experts warned people cannot rely on having had the common cold alone as protection against Covid and getting triple-jabbed remains ‘the best way to protect yourself’.
‘Loads of people have had two jabs but they haven’t yet come forward for their boost and I say to everybody: join the movement.’
Amid a growing clamour for a further tweak to isolation rules, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi suggested yesterday that a reduction would ease staffing issues, and Chancellor Rishi Sunak is believed to be in favour of the move.
Tory former chief whip Mark Harper, an influential lockdown-sceptic, urged the PM to declare an end to coronavirus restrictions.
Mr Harper warned Mr Johnson he could suffer an even greater rebellion than when he introduced his Plan B measures if he tries to extend them later this month.
Mr Johnson is unlikely to set out further plans while cases rates remain so high and the NHS remains under significant pressure.
Downing Street said it is ‘too early to say’ when the transition to ‘endemic’ will be complete.
But the PM’s spokesman said: ‘Exactly what point we’re on, that is probably still too early to say.
‘We are seeing early signs of cases falling in England and indeed even hospital admissions are starting to fall, but it’s still too early to draw conclusions.’
The spokesman stressed that hundreds of millions of LFDs were being sent out this month.
‘There’s no doubt that the use of lateral flow devices are both interrupting chains of transmission and saving lives,’ he said.
‘We’ve got 425 million tests coming on in January, as we set out.’
He said the Government’s Covid autumn and winter plan had set out that ‘at a later stage, as the Government’s response to the virus changes, universal free provision of these tests will end and I think that’s what the public would expect’.
But he said it was ‘too early to say specifically when we will have moved from the point where we’ve got extremely high prevalence currently, and when it will be right to consider a different approach’.
He added: ‘It’s right that we adapt along with the virus.’
Mr Gove said this morning: ‘We are moving to a situation – we’re not there yet – but we are moving to a situation where it is possible to say that we can live with Covid and that the pressure on the NHS and on vital public services is abating.
‘But it’s absolutely vital to recognise that we are not there yet and as the Health Secretary has reminded us, there will be some difficult weeks ahead and that is why we all need to continue to test, continue – if we are positive – to isolate and continue broadly to support the NHS as it goes through a challenging period.
‘But one in which the frontline professionals are doing an amazing job.’
Mr Gove told Sky News it would be for Mr Johnson and Health Secretary Sajid Javid to decide whether to cut the period of Covid isolation to five days from seven.
But he said: ‘We always keep things under review because we’re always guided by the facts, by the science, and by changing circumstances.
‘So I think it’s striking to note that in the United Kingdom overall, particularly in England, we have one of the most open regimes, one of the essentially… one of the most liberal approaches of any country in Europe, but we also need to balance that with a determination to ensure that we are not overwhelming the NHS.’
Mr Gove said the NHS was likely to face pressure for the next two-three weeks, and potentially longer.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Our first responsibility at the moment must be to support the NHS, but you quite rightly legitimately ask if we get through – and at the moment I hope and pray that we will get through this difficult period – then there will be better times ahead.
The above graph shows infection rates in under-60s in London since late November. It reveals that while rates are highest in 20 to 35-year-olds, there has recently been an uptick among children and their parents
The above graph shows Covid cases among over-60s and under-60s in London. Cases have now plateaued in the younger age group in a sign that the worst of London’s Omicron crisis may not be over
‘And I think one of the things that we do need to think about is how we live with Covid, how we live with this particular type of coronavirus. There are other coronaviruses which are endemic and with which we live, viruses tend to develop in a way whereby they become less harmful but more widespread.
London’s New Year’s Omicron hangover: Covid infections tick up in under-30s … but have started to FALL in over-60s as hospitalisation rates continue to drop
Infections in the capital have risen in under-60s as a whole since New Year’s Eve, with rates highest among adults in their 20s and 30s. Top experts fear they will likely keep creeping up because children have now gone back to school, giving the virus more opportunities to spread.
Simultaneously, cases appear to be dropping among the over-60s in a hopeful sign pressure could ease further on the NHS, with London’s hospitals already seeing a downturn in admissions.
But it’s not yet clear whether either trend is genuine or simply due to changes in the number of tests being carried out, with the proportion of people now swabbing positive for the coronavirus having fallen for the first time since Omicron took off.
Academics today warned that cases would inevitably rise in over-60s if the outbreak is generally growing among younger adults, warning that the true trajectory won’t become clear for another week or so.
Despite warning signs that the capital’s outbreak may not have peaked, London’s senior health official yesterday argued that outbreak peaked over the New Year period. Separate Covid surveillance data warned up to one in 10 Londoners were infected on New Year’s Eve.
Yesterday London recorded 16,493 cases, its lowest tally since mid-December. Its hospitalisations are also falling after peaking at half the level of last winter’s crisis.
But the numbers of critically ill patients has barely risen throughout the Omicron wave, which has given ministers confidence to stick to their ‘ride it out’ plan. Deaths are also flat and the mortality rate is dropping because of the ultra-infectious variant, experts say.
Nationally, Covid cases have fallen week-on-week over the last four days. But they are now highest in the North West and North East, in a sign these regions could soon face heavier pressures.
‘So, guided by the science, we can look to the progressive lifting of restrictions, and I think for all of us the sooner the better. But we’ve got to keep the NHS safe.’
Mr Gove admitted that he personally had been at the ‘more cautious end’ in the discussions over restrictions, before Christmas but the PM’s judgement had been ‘vindicated’.
‘We always keep that under review but his judgment has been vindicated,’ he said.
The Cabinet minister said it was ‘impossible to predict’ how long lateral flow tests will remain free.
But he said: ‘But it is the case that in this country lateral flow tests are free, unlike in many other jurisdictions, they’re a vital tool in making sure that we can curb the spread of the infection and also that people who are needed to isolate do so.’
Prof Graham Medley, who heads the SPI-M modelling subgroup of SAGE, said the country is transitioning away from ’emergency’ – but warned it will be a process rather than a moment.
‘I think that that transition is absolutely true. It can’t be an emergency forever,’ he told the BBC.
‘So at some point it will have to stop being an emergency but that is likely to be a phase out rather than an active point in time where somebody can declare the epidemic over. It’s going to fade out and disappear much more slowly than that, I think.’
Clive Watson, chairman of the City Pub Group, questioned the continuing work-from-home guidance and said the review of measures due by January 26 is a ‘very good opportunity’ to change them.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme things had been ‘really, really tough for the hospitality industry’.
Ahead of the next review of measures which are currently in place in England under Plan B, he said: ‘I think that’s a very good opportunity to modify those. I mean, for instance, why do people who work in hospitals or work in retail go to work, but office workers are exempted from going to work?
‘So I think we need to look at that very closely and start to withdraw those restrictions.’
Mr Harper, the chair of the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group, warned the rebellion if the Prime Minister tries to extend Plan B beyond January 26 could be even larger than the 100 Conservatives who defied him over their introduction last month.
‘I think there will be even more people against it,’ he said in an interview with the Financial Times. ‘I think the intellectual argument now is even weaker.’
Asked when Mr Johnson should formally declare an end to the restrictions, the MP said: ‘If that’s not now, when is it?’
Mr Zahawi insisted yesterday that lateral flow tests will remain free for the time being after the Sunday Times reported their provision could be massively reduced.
He said the UK Health Security Agency will investigate whether the isolation period can be reduced to five days, telling Sky’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday: ‘It would certainly help mitigate some of the pressures on schools, on critical workforce and others.
‘But I would absolutely be driven by advice from the experts, the scientists, on whether we should move to five days from seven days. What you don’t want is to create the wrong outcome by higher levels of infection.’
King’s College London scientists today suggested that cases in the capital also appeared to be peaking. They said they had dropped by a third within a week, raising hopes that the worst of the outbreak may be over. The figures rely on weekly reports from three quarters of a million people nationally to estimate the prevalence of the virus
Dr Clive Dix, former chairman of Britain’s vaccine taskforce, said mass testing and vaccination should end for all but the most vulnerable after the booster campaign is over.
‘It’s pointless trying to stop infection with it, which is sort of what mass vaccination is all about, because it’s not doing it. We’re seeing a lot of infection,’ he told Channel 4 News.
Dr Dix added: ‘I think that’s a little bit controversial but let’s look at a couple of months’ time, we shouldn’t be mass testing. I think mass testing doesn’t help anybody.
‘I think we need to get to the point where if we have a young person who gets Covid, having been vaccinated, we know they’ve got levels of protection, but just like if they’ve got very bad cold or flu, they stay at home… and when they get better they go back to work.’
NHS strikes deal with private sector to safeguard against Omicron: Independent hospitals on standby for three months to treat cancer patients if health service can’t
More NHS cancer patients will be treated in private hospitals under a deal struck with the sector to ‘safeguard’ against the staff absence crisis and rising Covid admissions.
The deal allows NHS trusts in England to send a wide range of patients, including those who need some forms of cancer surgery, to nearby private wards if they cannot provide the care.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who signed off on the three-month deal, said it would ‘ensure people can continue to get the care they need’ as the health service wrestles with a winter crisis.
Neither the cost of the agreement, nor the number of beds hired, has been disclosed, but the Government paid £400million a month for 8,000 private beds during the first wave of the pandemic. The extra capacity comes as NHS hospitals were told to identify areas such as gyms and community centres that can be used to create ‘super-surge’ wards in case they are overwhelmed.
But NHS bosses are confident that they will cope with the current Omicron-fuelled pressures, with one top official today insisting the ‘front line will hold’ even with the health service on ‘war footing’.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid (left) said the deal would provide ‘safeguarding’ to the NHS. But Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers which represents hospital trusts, said they could get through the Omicron crisis without further restrictions
Official data shows hospitalisations are slowing across the country — with 2,000 being admitted on average each day in England, half of last January’s peak — and are already falling in London, which was first region to be hit by Omicron.
The number of patients on ventilators has also stayed flat, and overall occupancy levels are no higher than in the winters before the pandemic struck. But cabinet minister Michael Gove today accepted the NHS would be under pressure for the ‘next two or three weeks’.
NHS waiting lists have surged to a record high of 6million after whole wards were turned over to fighting the virus, with some patients now waiting more than two years for care. MPs warned last week that the list could double in three years without urgent action to get more doctors and nurses on wards.