UK health chiefs brace for ‘bumpy ride’ amid fears over Covid wave

Health chiefs are braced for a “bumpy ride” over the coming months amid fears that the latest wave of Covid will drive hospitalisations to their highest in more than a year and seasonal flu pressures could hit early.

Dr Jenny Harries, the chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, told the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme that hospital cases with Covid were expected to rise in the weeks ahead, with admissions likely to exceed the April peak driven by the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates that Covid infections in the UK soared by more than half a million in a week at the end of June in the latest wave driven by even more transmissible variants of Omicron known as BA.4 and BA.5.

“It doesn’t look as though that wave has finished yet, so we would anticipate that hospital cases will rise. And it’s possible, quite likely, that they will actually peak over the previous BA.2 wave,” Harries said. “But I think the overall impact, we won’t know. It’s easy to say in retrospect, it’s not so easy to model forward.”

At its peak in April, the BA.2 wave in England hospitalised more than 2,000 people a day, making it more dangerous than the first Omicron wave in January. The most deadly wave of the pandemic so far came in January 2021 when the Alpha variant pushed daily hospitalisations in England above 4,000 in the early weeks of the vaccination programme.

Harries’ comments prompted a warning from NHS chiefs about the pressures hospitals will come under as the number of Covid patients rises ahead of a further wave expected in the autumn and what health officials fear could be a bad and early flu season.

“Trust leaders know they are in for a bumpy ride over the coming months as they tackle new and unpredictable variants of Covid-19 alongside grappling with seasonal flu pressures which may hit us earlier than usual this year,” said Saffron Cordery, the interim chief executive of NHS Providers.

“The policy of living with Covid does not mean Covid has gone away. The latest data shows we cannot afford to be complacent, with currently small but concerning increases over the past week in the number of patients both being admitted to hospital with Covid-19 and those needing a ventilator. Warnings from Dr Jenny Harries today that community infection rates and hospital admissions are expected to rise further is concerning.”

Cordery added: “Waves of Covid-19 and flu will put additional pressure on stretched NHS staff and services and their efforts to tackle waiting lists, deliver efficiencies and transform the NHS, as well as on our hard-pressed colleagues in social care.”

An estimated 2.3 million people in private households across the UK had Covid in the week ending 24 June, up 32% from a week earlier, according to the ONS. The figure suggests infections are at their highest since late April, though some way below the record 4.9m infections during the BA.2 wave at the end of March.

Harries said the rise in Covid hospitalisations, despite vaccines and antiviral drugs, would affect other work in the health service. “It’s not just Covid that we’re concerned about, but it’s actually our ability to treat other illnesses as well,” she said.

She encouraged people to “go about their normal lives but in that precautionary way”, highlighting handwashing, keeping distance where possible and wearing a face covering in enclosed, poorly ventilated places. On wearing masks, she said: “If I’ve got any respiratory infection it’s a good thing to do, and I think it’s a new lesson for the country.”

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