Hospitals likely to be ‘overwhelmed’ by omicron, government adviser warns

‘Very real possibility’ NHS will be overwhelmed next month, says Sage member

Adam Forrest
Wednesday 15 December 2021 10:27
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Related video: Health secretary says government does not have ‘complete picture of omicron’s severity’

The possibility that the NHS could be overwhelmed due to the rise of the omicron variant of Covid is “one of the more likely things” to happen, a leading government scientist has said.

Professor Graham Medley, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said he was worried the number of people being admitted to hospital could “get very large” if omicron infections continue to soar and spill into older age groups.

Pressed on the possibility of the NHS being overwhelmed next month, the expert told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think so, there is that possibility.”

Prof Medley added: “It’s very hard to be certain about these things. You certainly can’t put a risk or probability on them – but that is one of the more likely things that could happen.”

England’s chief medical office Professor Chris Whitty has warned a “significant increase in hospitalisations” is coming from omicron, with Boris Johnson telling his ministers to expect a “huge spike” in infections.

UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) chief Jenny Harries warned on Wednesday that omicron was “probably the most significant threat we’ve had since the start of the pandemic” and the NHS could be in “serious peril” because of the new wave.

Prof Medley said omicron would likely cause Covid case numbers to go beyond the peak of seen last winter. “We’re probably now at the level that we have been at the past, sort of back in January, and it does look as though it’s going to continue beyond that and go over it.”

The Sage expert, who was speaking in a personal capacity, said there was not currently any good information on the severity of omicron, but added: “The fact that we are much more immune than we were generally means that the virus will appear to be much less severe.”

Prof Medley, who is also chair of the government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M), said it was a “million-dollar question” over how this would affect the health service.

But he warned there could soon be up to 2,000 hospitalisations a day – more than the number seen at the height of the delta variant outbreak. Asked if hospitals could end up overwhelmed, he said: “I think that that is a very real possibility.”

Prof Medley said: “If the numbers of infections increasing continues in the way that it has done, and it spills out into older age groups, then we could see numbers of people being admitted to hospital getting very large and certainly going over the 1,000 – maybe up to 2,000 a day – that we’ve managed to keep the delta variant below.”

The expert said there have been around 800 hospital admissions per day for the past five months but “if we’d had all those in one month then ... the NHS would have been extremely taxed”. He added: “And that is the fear - that we end up with the next four months of the epidemic in one month.”

Meanwhile, Professor Tim Spector, who helped found the Covid Zoe app, said Covid cases in London are accelerating more than was seen during the very first wave of the virus.

He told the Today programme the “majority of symptoms” of the omicron variant are like a common cold, including headaches, sore throat, runny nose, fatigue and sneezing. “In London, where Covid is increasing rapidly, it’s far more likely to be Covid than it is to be a cold.”

On Tuesday evening, new restrictions were approved in parliament for face coverings at more indoor spaces in England and the introduction of NHS Covid passes for nightclubs and large venues.

In Scotland, people have been urged to limit their mixing by socialising with only up to two other households indoors, while in Northern Ireland, politicians backed mandatory Covid certification for access to nightclubs, pubs, restaurants and other licensed premises.

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