The Sunday Telegraph
Hospital figures hint that third wave is receding
Despite rise in Covid cases, confidence grows that critical link with admissions may have been broken
The data is apparently clear: Covid cases across the UK are increasing once again at an alarming rate. On Thursday, spurred on by the Indian (Delta) variant and the gradual easing of restrictions, daily reported cases crossed the 10,000 mark for the first time since February.
The rise prompted the Government to delay easing social distancing restrictions until July 19. And yesterday, scientists advising the Government were again painting a gloomy picture. “It’s going up, perhaps we can be a little bit optimistic it’s not going up any faster, but nevertheless it’s going up, so this third wave is definitely under way,” Professor Adam Finn, who advises the Government on the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
But the reality is the Government’s main focus will be hospitals.
Currently, the data suggests that hospitalisations are not increasing at the same speed as in the second wave.
In the North West, which is at the centre of the outbreak, hospital rates are a third of what they were at the same period during the second wave in September.
And whilst hospitals there have felt increased pressures in recent weeks, the proportion of beds occupied by patients with Covid is 2 per cent, compared with 6 per cent last September.
Across England as a whole, the picture is even more optimistic. As of June 15, under 1 per cent of hospital patients have Covid; a third of hospitals have no Covid patients at all.
This reflects the fact that not every region has seen a spike in cases but, given the high transmissibility of the Delta variant, it is likely only a matter of time until rates do increase.
Dr Mike Tildesley, epidemiologist and a member of the SPI-M modelling group, told BBC Breakfast: “We are now in a situation where if we sort of wind back a month ago we were starting to see signs of cases creeping up, and they have been creeping steadily for the last four weeks, but we haven’t yet seen that reflected in hospital admissions and deaths.
“Hospital admissions are starting to rise a bit, but the vaccination campaign is doing very well, and so we’re not in the same situation we were back in October when cases were rising. We then got a big wave of hospital admissions and deaths. There’s still a little bit of work to do for us over the next couple of weeks to really firm up the link between cases and hospital admissions, but I’m, I suppose at the moment, cautiously hopeful that whilst we probably will expect some sort of wave of hospital admissions over the next few weeks, it won’t be the same scale we saw in January.”
Meanwhile the data also reveals evidence that the vaccine is making progress in slowing the case rate in older people and breaking the link between hospitalisations and cases.
In the North West, the most vulnerable age group – those aged over 90 – has a case rate of 29 per 100,000 – almost a fifth of the rate in September. This has led to a dramatic change in who ends up in hospital.
Currently, those aged 65 to 84 are just as likely to be in hospital as working-age adults. In September, they were almost five times more likely.
But there are some caveats – and signs which could cause concern First, the very vulnerable age groups – those aged over 85 – are still ending up in hospital at four times the rate as younger people – a figure which is increasing. This is evidence that the vaccine doesn’t offer total immunity – as widely reported in PHE studies – and that if cases continue rising, it is more likely that the virus will affect a small minority of people.
Secondly, critical care beds in some hotspots have seen pressures not necessarily seen in the wards. For example, in Bolton’s main NHS trust more than 70 per cent of patients in critical care have the virus.
But it is also Bolton which will offer the most hope as their “third wave” of cases appears to be over, with cases rising at similar levels seen in January.
However, hospital cases only rose to a quarter of the level as before.
With cases now declining in neighbouring Blackburn, the data arriving in the next couple of weeks might help to further ease the minds of those planning the country’s route out of lockdown.