The Guardian

Act urgently or face up to 7,000 a day in hospital, scientists tell PM

- Ian Sample Heather Stewart

Between 2,000 and 7,000 people a day could be hospitalis­ed with Covid in England next month unless the government urgently implements a “basket of measures”, government scientific advisers have warned as Boris Johnson made clear he hopes to avoid fresh restrictio­ns.

The prime minister confirmed yesterday that Covid passports, the return of mandatory mask-wearing and advice to work from home would be kept in reserve as the government’s “plan B”, to be introduced if the NHS is at risk of being overwhelme­d.

But newly published modelling from experts on the Sage advisory committee warn the government not to wait too long, with cases, hospitalis­ations and deaths all higher than a year ago despite the success of the vaccinatio­n programme.

Speaking alongside Johnson at a Downing Street press conference, the chief medical adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, also said experience of battling the virus showed “you have to go earlier than you think you want to, you have to go harder than you think you want to”. He said the UK was now at a “pivot point” where, if the situation worsens, it could do so rapidly.

Modellers on the Sage committee expect cases to rise in the coming months after almost all restrictio­ns were lifted this summer, documents show. Daily hospitalis­ations could plausibly peak at 7,000 in England next month, far surpassing the winter peak which reached 4,500 UK-wide, according to the updated modelling.

Currently about 1,000 people with Covid are being admitted to UK hospital wards each day.

But if enacted early enough, before a rise in cases becomes sustained, even light-touch measures could be sufficient to keep infections flat and prevent a damaging fresh wave of hospitalis­ations, the Sage documents say. “With the current levels of high prevalence combined with unknown behaviours, the burden on health and care settings could rise very quickly,” the scientists warn. They say “it could be a very difficult winter ahead” if acute Covid combines with other pressures such as long Covid, other infections like flu, or co-infection to cause more serious illness.

Even though 81% of UK

‘People still need to take this disease very seriously’

Prof Chris Whitty Chief medical officer, England

adults are double-jabbed, nearly 6 million are unvaccinat­ed and vulnerable to the highly transmissi­ble Delta variant.

Sage modellers expect R – the number of people an infected person typically infects – to rise from about 1 in England to between 1.1 and 1.5 with schools reopening and people returning to work. If so, daily hospitalis­ations could peak at between 2,000 and 7,000 in October, respective­ly, they said.

More extreme scenarios that project many more cases are highly unlikely, the modellers add, without substantia­l waning of immunity or a new coronaviru­s variant emerging.

The recommenda­tions were published as the health secretary, Sajid Javid, set out the government’s autumn and winter plan. He said ministers’ “plan A” included pressing ahead with booster jabs for the over-50s and clinically vulnerable and expanding vaccinatio­n to 12 to 15-year-olds, and continuing to advise meeting outdoors where possible and masks in enclosed spaces.

Javid also announced contingenc­y measures for the autumn and winter including mandatory masks, compulsory vaccine passports for large and crowded venues, and urging the public to work from home.

When Javid was appointed in June, he described the removal of Covid restrictio­ns as “irreversib­le” but setting out the plans to the House of Commons yesterday he declined to rule out another lockdown and conceded: “Any responsibl­e government must prepare for all eventualit­ies.”

Asked at yesterday’s press conference when tougher restrictio­ns may need to be implemente­d, the prime minister said: “Just bear in mind what we’re trying to prevent, which is the overwhelmi­ng of the NHS, and that will remain our objective.”

The chief medical officer for England, Prof Chris Whitty, stressed the pressures the NHS was already under. “We are entering the winter with this reasonably high level; it wouldn’t take many doubling times to get into trouble; and therefore people still need to take this disease very seriously,” he said. The government’s autumn and winter plan set out for the first time details of how it would implement vaccine passports – a proposal announced by Johnson in July but that provoked a furious backlash from Tory MPs.

Under the plan, the passports would be applied to all nightclubs; all indoor, crowded settings with 500 or more people such as music venues; all outdoor settings with 4,000 or more people such as festivals; and any venue with 10,000 or more people, such as big sports matches.

At the weekend Javid confirmed plans to introduce Covid passports from October had been ditched but yesterday the government acknowledg­ed they may need to be implemente­d at short notice.

The Sage group propose “a basket of measures” they believe are light enough to keep the epidemic under control if brought in soon enough. They include more mask-wearing, encouragin­g home working, clear messaging about the remaining risk of catching Covid, more testing and a return to requiring all contacts of positive cases to self-isolate. The scientists are concerned that if ministers wait until cases take off, more severe restrictio­ns will be needed.

A consensus document from the modellers, written on 8 September, says that rather than the sharp peak anticipate­d at the end of the summer, hospitalis­ations could peak next month and remain high in winter.

The scientists warn that hospital occupancy in England only has to rise two and half times to reach last winter’s peak. In Scotland, it took two weeks for hospital occupancy to double after schools went back.

The scientists say there is a “clear consensus” that high levels of home working played a major role in keeping the epidemic under control in recent months, and warn: “It is highly likely that a significan­t decrease in home working in the next few months would result in a rapid increase in hospital admissions. If enacted early enough, a relatively light set of measures could be sufficient to curb sustained growth.”

 ??  ?? ▲ Boris Johnson giving his Covid briefing in Downing Street yesterday
▲ Boris Johnson giving his Covid briefing in Downing Street yesterday

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