The Government’s scientific advisers struck a sombre tone as they pointed to the “growing” Covid epidemic in the UK, with vaccines having weakened but not “completely broken” the link between cases and hospital admissions.
As Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that reopening in the summer was a better option than waiting for the cooler months, Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance told a Downing Street briefing that cases are rising quickly, and hospital admissions and deaths will rise.
Prof Whitty, who is England’s chief medical officer, said the epidemic currently across the UK was “significant” and suggested hospital admissions could reach “quite high numbers”, although they are not expected to reach the figures seen in January.
He said the “NHS is an emergency service” and so one level it “will cope with anything.”
But pointing to the doubling time for the numbers of cases going into hospital, he said: “The number of cases going in a day at the moment is relatively low compared to previous waves – around about 300 – but if you double up and then double up and then double up and double again, at a certain point you get – and in fact in a surprisingly small number of doublings – you get to really quite high numbers.
“So the question is at what stage along this path, are the doubling times getting to the point where the numbers are very high before we actually lead to a reduction because the peak of the epidemic happens?
“And what the modelling would imply is that we will reach that peak before we get to the point where we have the kind of pressures we saw in January, for example, of this year.
“But, inevitably, with all models you have to say there is some degree of uncertainty.”
Prof Whitty said he shared the “strong view” that opening in the summer had advantages compared to the winter, when the NHS would be under pressure and schools would go back.
He said at a certain point “you move to a situation where instead of actually averting hospitalisations and deaths, you move over to just delaying them, so you’re not actually changing the number of people who will go to hospital or die – you may change when they happen.
“And there is quite a strong view by many people, including myself actually, that going in the summer has some advantages, all other things being equal, to opening up into the autumn when schools are going back and when we’re heading into the winter period when the NHS tends to be under greater pressure for many other reasons.”
Earlier in the briefing, the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick said the doubling time for cases is now “roughly nine days”.
While cases are mainly among younger age people, he said they were “spreading up the age groups,” as he urged people to ensure they have had both Covid-19 vaccine doses.
Regarding hospital admissions, Sir Patrick said “we have got an increase in the number of people in hospital, but it’s not so steep” as it was in January.
“The doubling time is slower than for cases so it’s not rising as fast, but the hospitalisations are rising and are rising quite steeply in some places, and we would expect them to continue,” he told the briefing.
“So essentially what this shows is that the vaccines have weakened the link between cases and hospitalisation, but it’s a weakened link, not a completely broken link, and we will still see increases in hospitalisation.”
Turning to deaths, he said they were increasing and will rise as cases rise.
However, when asked how many deaths the July 19 relaxations could cause, he did not answer directly.
He said the modelling would be made public, adding that there is wide uncertainty around the figures.