'Very high' COVID levels not translating into hospital admissions and deaths, top official claims
One of the UK's top health officials has claimed "very high" COVID infections in the UK are not translating into hospitalisations – despite admissions rising to levels seen last during the Omicron peak in January.
All coronavirus laws in England came to an end last month, while laws are being gradually relaxed in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), there were 3.5 million people with COVID in the UK in the week up to 25 March.
Dame Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said the country was seeing a "very high level" of infections.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “But what we’re not seeing of course is a significant translation of that into serious illness, hospitalisations and most importantly, deaths."
However, figures released by the government show a steep increase in daily admissions since regulations ended, reaching 2,446 last week.
On 3 January, when Omicron cases were surging in the UK, daily hospitalisation figures in the UK reached 2,479.
In Scotland, where some COVID regulations have remained in place, daily hospitalisations reached their highest levels in the entire pandemic, with 248 admitted on 15 March.
A critical incident was also declared by the health service in Shropshire this week, who said hospitals in the county had the highest number of COVID patients since the start of the pandemic.
NHS inpatient numbers are nearing the peak reached in early January 2022 – 17,120 – but remain well below the 34,336 at the peak of the second wave of the virus at the start of 2021.
Three regions of England have already passed their January 2022 peak – the South West, the South East and eastern England.
Despite the increase in hospital numbers, the number of people in mechanical ventilator beds is still very low: 318 as of Wednesday, which is some way below the level reached at the start of this year (797) and far below the total at the start of 2021 (3,736).
Meanwhile, the chief scientific adviser to the government warned of higher hospitalisation rates and said that there are “consequences” for the very high rates of infection in the community.
Watch: COVID: Bereaved families call for Boris Johnson to resign over 'partygate'
Sir Patrick Vallance also warned that a reduction in testing will lead to a “decrease in precautionary behaviours” which could drive up transmission of the virus.
He told MPs on the science and technology committee that it was not a “credible” strategy to give people booster jabs every four months and that he expected for the UK to fall into a pattern of giving annual vaccines “like we do for flu”.
Asked if he was concerned by the recent case rates, he told MPs: “It is very important that actually, at the moment, the realised severity, because of vaccines and other things, is being kept under control.
“I think the numbers of infections are beginning to turn so we may be quite close to, or at, the peak and it may start coming down shortly.
“But I expect to see further hospitalisations because of the lag time and further deaths with it, so that is the consequence of the high levels of infection rates.”
England's chief medical officer, Sir Chris Whitty, also said last week that rates of COVID are “high and rising” in England, and warned of increases in hospital admissions over the next fortnight.
Whitty said the virus was causing pressure in the NHS but that high rates of transmission were fortunately not translating into high levels of intensive care (ICU) cases and deaths.
He told the Local Government Association and Association of Directors of Public Health’s annual public health conference: "If we look at hospitalisations, there are now quite significant numbers of people in hospital and they are now rising again, and I think will continue to rise for at least the next two weeks.
“So, there is pressure on the NHS and fortunately this is not translating into cases in ICU, it’s not at the moment translating into significant impact on excess deaths.”
Harries conceded there had been "a small uptick in deaths in the last week, adding that "some hospitals are coming under significant pressure and we shouldn’t underestimate that".
She praised the success of vaccines in fighting serious illness, saying: "Overall, immune defences through the vaccination programme has been really successful and of course we now have treatments”.
Harries spoke the day before free testing in England comes to end as part of the government’s plan to live with COVID after two years of regulations and restrictions.
Asked if it is the right time to end free testing, Harries said the UK must come to terms with the pandemic remaining unpredictable for around the next "18 months to two years".
But, she said, the UK "has to come to terms with that”.
Harries said warmer weather will likely drive down infection rates and that there are high levels of population immunity as long as people come forward for booster jabs.
All coronavirus laws in England including the legal requirement for people who test positive to isolate ended on 24 February after Boris Johnson set out the strategy for “living with COVID”.