The wave of Omicron cases of Covid may have reached its peak in London, an expert has said as numbers of confirmed daily cases of the variant have reportedly dropped by more than a quarter in the city.
Professor Neil Ferguson said he was “cautiously optimistic” that there were signs that the most-infectious strain of Covid so far is beginning to “plateau” in the capital.
He added that other regions of the UK would see similar reductions in new Omicron cases by the end of January.
But Prof Ferguson urged caution, saying the numbers of Omicron cases in Londoners over 50-years-old “are not falling in the same way”.
He told the BBC Today programme: “I think I’m cautiously optimistic that infection rates in London in that key 18-50 age group, which has been driving the Omicron epidemic, may possibly have plateaued, it’s too early to say whether they’re going down yet.”
“I would say that with an epidemic which has been spreading so quickly and reaching such high numbers, it can’t sustain those numbers forever, so we would expect to see case numbers start to come down in the next week, maybe already coming down in London, but in other regions a week to three weeks,” he added.
“Whether they then drop precipitously or we see a pattern a bit like we saw with Delta back in July – of an initial drop and then quite a high plateau – remains to be seen, it’s just too difficult to interpret current mixing trends and what the effect of open schools again will be.”
Since Omicron became the dominant variant in London in December, more than 27,000 confirmed cases a day have been recorded in the city.
On Monday, the figure of daily recorded Omicron cases in London dropped by 30 per cent to 20,080.
But the real number is believed to be higher because of a likely prevalence of asymptomatic cases, and a statistic showing 1 in 15 Londoners are estimated to have had Covid in the week before Christmas.
Shortages of lateral flow tests during the past weeks has also likely contributed to lower numbers, Prof Ferguson said, as well as the fact that reinfections, which account for 10 to 15 per cent of Omicron cases, are not included in the data.
The impact of intergenerational mixing during the festive period and the return to schools have also yet to be fully reflected in the figures.
And children returning to school this week after the Christmas break is expected to drive “quite high infection levels, of mild infection” among the pupils, said Prof Ferguson, the director of the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London.
He added: “So we would expect to see case numbers start to come down between a week ... maybe already coming down in London ... but in other regions a week to three weeks.”
The number of Covid patients in London’s hospitals rose to 3,848 on Monday, just less than half the level of the second wave peak, but admissions have dropped in recent days.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said hospital admissions seemed to have “perhaps plateaued in London or there may be a second peak after the New Year”.
Lambeth director of public health, Ruth Hutt, said cases in the south London borough “looked like” they peaked in the week before Christmas. But she also warned of infection levels rising among older Londoners and of outbreaks in care homes.
Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said the worst of the pandemic is “absolutely behind us”, adding that learning how to live with the virus is “going to be the critical next step”.
Meanwhile, Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, told Sky News that approximately half a dozen hospitals across the country have declared critical incidents in the last five days due to staff absences, Covid cases and winter pressures.
No 10 admitted that the NHS is facing a “difficult time” during a “challenging winter”.
Downing Street insisted that the current level of coronavirus restrictions and guidance in England – working from home where possible, using Covid immunity passes, wearing masks in many indoor public places, and getting vaccinations and booster jabs – was “the right course”.
Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson said: “We keep a very close eye on NHS capacity, that’s something we track very closely.
“We know that admissions and occupancy are increasing significantly at the moment – we’re not seeing that same jump in beds requiring ventilation, which is pleasing, and almost certainly a function of both the nature of Omicron and our successful booster programme.
“But we keep an extremely close eye on NHS capacity at all times.”
Asked whether the number of people in intensive care was playing an “important role in the prime minister’s thinking” on how to handle the Omicron spike, the spokesperson said: “It is one aspect that informs how the NHS is dealing with this current wave.”