UK not ‘out of the woods’ despite falling Covid case numbers, says expert

Caution is still needed and the UK is not “out of the woods yet” despite Covid infection numbers dropping, the epidemiologist Neil Ferguson has warned, as health chiefs said pressure on hospitals was as great as in January.

As scientists remain puzzled at cases dropping for a sixth day in a row in England, Prof Ferguson, from Imperial College London and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), argued it was still “too early to tell” what effect the 19 July unlocking would have.

“We won’t see for several more weeks what the effect of the unlocking is,” he told the BBC’s Today programme.

“We’re not completely out of the woods, but the equation has fundamentally changed. The effect of vaccines is hugely reducing the risk of hospitalisations and death. And I’m positive that by late September or October time we will be looking back at most of the pandemic.

“We will have Covid with us, we will still have people dying from Covid, but we’ll have put the bulk of the pandemic behind us.

“Clearly the higher we can get vaccination coverage, the better – that will protect people and reduce transmission – but there is going to be remaining uncertainty until the autumn.”

Earlier this month Ferguson said that it was possible that the 19 July easing of Covid restrictions in England could lead to up to 200,000 Covid cases a day. However, confirmed UK cases have fallen for the past six days, dropping 21.5% week on week from a high of 54,674 on 17 July to 24,950 on 26 July.

There was a rise in infections associated with the European football championships, and gathering indoors and in the pub, but that was followed by warm weather, more outdoor living and windows open, he said.

“We will be able to see later this week and next week whether we see hospitalisations, which are still rising at the moment, start to decline. That would give us more confidence that we really have seen a peak, maybe not the peak but a peak at the moment. But I think we need to remain cautious. There is the potential for quite a substantial increase in contact rates again.

Ferguson’s comments came as the national clinical director of the Scottish government, Prof Jason Leitch, described how the country’s case rate was “dramatically falling”. “We had five out of the top 10 local authorities in the UK, now we have none in the top 150,” Leitch told Today.

“We’ve now seen hospitalisations fall. Around 3% of positive people get admitted to hospital but they are now younger, relatively healthy and discharged quicker. But some stay, and we’ve had many deaths over the last few days.”

He said the participation of fans in Euro 2020 had caused a spike in cases, but said it was “important to keep the football in perspective”.

“The Scotland-England game gave us a spike because of travel, not necessarily Wembley. Unfortunately, from a sporting perspective, Scotland went out far too early. But epidemiologically speaking, that probably did us some favours,” he said.

“We tested a lot of these fans and for a short time [cases] went from 1:1 male-female to 9:1 male-female. It has now returned to 1:1.”

Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, saidthe pressure on hospital, community, mental health and administration services “feels as great as it did in January”.

Around 15,000 of 100,000 NHS beds had been lost due to measures to reduce transmission in patients, and the NHS was still doing “a whole bunch of different things at once” and “trying to recover all of those care backlogs at full pelt”.

“We’ve got record demand for urgent care. We have got growing numbers of Covid cases, lower than we had in January but still growing. We have lost about 15,000 beds in the NHS because we need to keep patients safe and ensure we have effective infection controls. We have got large numbers of staff self isolating. We do have growing numbers, unfortunately, of staff off with stress and other mental health conditions. And we are now hitting peak summer leave period,” he told Sky News.

“So what trust chief executives are saying is if you add all of that together it does feel as busy and pressurised as it did in January. And what we musn’t do is just focus on the numbers of Covid cases and use that as a proxy for the total amount of pressure that the NHS is under. We need to look at the whole picture.”

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