Jonathan Van-Tam voices concerns over rising Covid death rate

Too many people believe the Covid-19 pandemic is over, England’s deputy chief medical officer has said, adding that he is worried that increasing numbers of deaths show “the infection is now starting to penetrate into older age groups”.

Speaking to the BBC on Wednesday morning, Prof Jonathan Van-Tam said: “I personally feel there are some hard months to come in the winter and it’s not over.

“I think a whole range of behaviours, including the use of face coverings, but generally the caution that people take or don’t take in terms of interacting with each other – that is going to be a big determinant in what happens between now and the kind of darkest months of the winter.”

The pandemic was “running quite hot” in the country, with rates of coronavirus infections higher than in most of the rest of Europe, Van-Tam said. “And, of course, it’s of concern to scientists that we are running this hot this early in the autumn season.”

Deploying one of his trademark metaphors, Van-Tam said the UK was at “half-time in extra time” in tackling Covid. He added: “I think the final whistle in terms of – I can’t predict it – but my personal view is that we’ve got a few more months to run, and I think we’ll be in a much calmer set of waters by spring.

“But I think, until then, caution, be very careful, this is not quite over and vaccines, boosters, [are] really important.”

Although hospital admissions had slowed, and the numbers in hospital were going down, Van-Tam said “we have to just wait and see a bit longer” to be sure this was not a pause before another escalation in numbers, or merely a sign that the situation was beginning to stabilise at a high rate.

He said the overall fall in case numbers reflected the ebb of a large wave among teenagers. “But my worry is that the deaths are increasing and that shows that the infection is now starting to penetrate into those older age groups,” he said.

“And that’s why the really key thing is that if you are called for your booster, if you are called for your flu vaccine, please go and get them – this could be really very important this winter, it is not the time to be complacent.”

Wearing face masks was useful, “but they are probably most useful when used in combination with other things”, and particularly if others felt uncomfortable without them or if authorities asked a person to do so, Van-Tam said.

He conceded it was unrealistic to wear them while sat around a table enjoying food or drink with friends, but that people should “wear masks when mobile, and use them as you’re entering and exiting the premises”.

“And then, finally, you’ve got the kind of very high-mobility, high-interaction venues such as clubs and here you can see it would be very socially inhibiting to wear face masks,” he said. “I think if the epidemiology gets worse in the UK that on its own would not be enough in those kinds of venues.”

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