Chris Whitty has said the UK needs to “brace” for another difficult winter.
England’s chief medical officer warned on Thursday of another coronavirus surge, as well as a flu surge.
While he said it won’t be as bad as last winter’s COVID-19 crisis, in which tens of thousands of people were hospitalised and died, Prof Whitty warned there are “further problems” to come later this year.
Here is why.
1. COVID surge
The Delta variant of the virus, first identified in India, has changed the outlook of the pandemic.
It is 60% more infectious, and forced Boris Johnson to pause the end of England's lockdown which was originally planned for Monday.
The idea of that delay is to provide more time for people to receive two doses of the vaccine, and gain maximum possible protection, before all restrictions are lifted.
However, even with a majority of people double jabbed, Prof Whitty, who was speaking at the NHS Confederation conference, said he is still expecting a “late autumn/winter surge”.
Watch: Boris Johnson explains lockdown delay
“And that’s because winter and autumn favour respiratory viruses. Therefore it would be very surprising if this particular highly transmissible respiratory virus [doesn’t cause] further problems over the winter.”
He said it remains “uncertain” how big the surge will be.
“That partly depends on [if] we get new variants which can evade vaccines better, and partly depends on how the current wave passes through the UK.”
Public Health England revealed on Monday the continued high effectiveness of vaccines against symptomatic disease (about 80%) and hospitalisations (about 94%) from the Delta variant after two doses.
2. Flu surge
Last winter, we were in either local or national lockdowns. As a result, flu outbreaks were suppressed. This winter, with few – if any – restrictions anticipated, Prof Whitty is expecting a new surge in flu cases.
“We will get all of those back this coming winter unless the COVID situation is so bad that everybody has started to go back to essentially minimising their social contacts again.
“Either we will have a very significant COVID surge and people minimise their contacts and we have less respiratory viruses… or people will be back to a more normal life with some COVID, but on top of that we will go back to having flu and RSV [respiratory syncytial virus] surges.
“So I think we need to be aware of and braced for the fact that the coming winter may well be quite a difficult one, not probably on the scale of the last one… but still quite a significant one.”
‘COVID has not thrown its last surprise’
Prof Whitty, who has always said COVID will be with us forever and that we will have to learn to live with it, also offered his thoughts on how the pandemic could play out over the next three years.
“I think new variants may well lead to us having to revaccinate, or consider at least boosting vaccinations as they come through,” he said.
“We have to be aware COVID has not thrown its last surprise at us and there will be several more over the next period.”
Watch: Thursday's daily politics briefing