There is a “clear possibility” that the NHS could face a “serious situation” over the winter, one of the UK’s leading scientists has warned.
Professor Mark Woolhouse, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh, said ministers “need to be looking at – at least – what measures they can take to slow the damage over the course of the winter”.
“They are looking at them, but they don’t seem to accept very many,” he said.
The SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) member, who was speaking in a personal capacity, said coronavirus-related hospital admissions are “creeping up”, which is a cause for concern.
The rate of hospital admissions among people aged 65 and over has more than doubled in the past two months, with the increase sharpest among over-85s.
There were at least 28 NHS Trusts in England that had more than 10% of their beds unoccupied, likely indicating that many are cancelling elective operations to make room for coronavirus patients.
At Rotherham NHS Foundation Trust, 16% of all patients had COVID-19, the highest proportion of patients at any NHS trust in England.
Prof Woolhouse attributed the increase in hospital admissions and deaths to unvaccinated people, saying: “It looks like a lot of the more serious cases are still occurring among people who haven’t had the vaccine, more vulnerable people.”
The percentage of those aged 16 and over who are unvaccinated is about 12% in England, 10% in Wales, 9% in Scotland and 14% in Northern Ireland.
About 80% of over-16s in England have had both doses of a COVID-19 vaccine, while the figure is about 84% in Wales, 83% in Scotland and 79% in Northern Ireland.
The proportion who have had only one dose so far stands at about 8% in England, 6% in Wales, 8% in Scotland, and 7% in Northern Ireland.
While case rates have been higher in the third wave than the second wave, deaths and hospitalisations have been significantly lower so far.
Daily deaths are now nearly a third of the figure seen at the same point during the second wave.
Hospital admissions are currently at about two-thirds of the rate they were at the same stage in the second wave.
Prof Woolhouse said that that “barring something completely unforeseen, going back into lockdown will be a failure of public health policy”, adding: “There should not be a need for that.”
“There is an argument for taking some kind of measures to slow [the third wave],” he said, “but nothing too disruptive.”
He listed vaccine passports, work from home advice, and vaccinating children as examples of tools the government can use to slow down hospital admissions – but highlighted two as the most key: vaccinating vulnerable people who haven’t had the jab and booster shots for those who are most vulnerable.
He said: “We’re in a transition phase from an epidemic which we’re trying to suppress, to having an endemic infection, one that’s with us indefinitely, and I think part of that transition is a move away from restrictions that stop us from doing things to ways of doing them more safely.”
Prof Woolhouse said there are “very powerful forces driving the epidemic and to say which way the balance will fall over the next few weeks is really quite difficult”.
He said the two driving forces affecting the epidemic are “the continual buildup in herd immunity” as people get vaccinated and are exposed to the virus – and the increase in transmission as people take advantage of the relaxation of restrictions.
He said the effect of masks on the virus’s transmission is “probably quite small” but their more significant impact is as “a marker for continued concern about the virus”.
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