Scientists warn on dropping England’s Plan B Covid curb too soon

Government science advisers and healthcare leaders have cautioned against dropping England’s Plan B restrictions of homeworking and mask-wearing prematurely, despite signs that infections and hospital pressures caused by the Omicron coronavirus variant have reached their peak.

Ministers are expected not to renew the Plan B legislation in England when it expires on January 26 encouraged by growing evidence that the Omicron wave is receding. The devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales are also set to unwind the tighter restrictions they imposed in response to the variant, including lifting capacity limits on large events next week.

One senior Whitehall official told the FT that the latest data suggested the UK prime minister Boris Johnson had made “the right call” to resist imposing more draconian, legal limits on social mixing in England, but cautioned: “We aren’t out of the woods yet”.

The latest minutes from the January 7 meeting of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, published on Friday, warned that the wave “still had the potential to continue to grow nationally”, adding that the effect of the return to schools and workplaces was “not yet known”.

It warned that the reversal of Plan B before the peak was passed could lead to changes in behaviour and “increase the overall impact of this wave on hospitalisations”.

Covid hospital admissions are flat or falling in all UK nations and regions, with London, Wales and Northern Ireland all down at least 20 per cent from the recent peak, according to the latest regional official data published on Friday.

Across the UK, an average of 2,243 Covid patients were admitted in the last seven days, down slightly from a high of 2,287 in the week to January 4. In London, daily average Covid admissions fell 25 per cent from the peak of 416 on December 31.

There were signs of a slowdown in the rise of admission in north east England and Yorkshire, an area that has seen the highest growth recently. The number of Covid patients in hospital was up less than 1 per cent in the last 24 hours at 2,857, a marked drop on daily growth of 5 per cent earlier this week.

Chart showing that cases have exceeded the pre-Omicron peak across the UK, but more serious outcomes will peak at a lower level

Meanwhile, separate data showed a growing proportion of children admitted to hospital with Covid were from the very youngest age group.

In the three weeks to January 6, 42 per cent of paediatric Covid admissions were under the age of one, a marked rise from around 30 per cent during previous waves, according to a Isaric/Co-CIN study presented to Sage. Children from the most deprived background were worst affected. However, researchers stressed that the infants were “not particularly sick” and the average length of stay was roughly a third shorter than in the first wave

Sage warned that hospital pressures would “remain high for some time” because of stubbornly high transmission and rising infections in older and unvaccinated groups.

Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London and a government adviser, called for “careful easement” of the remaining measures. “I would prefer to keep measures in place and to be cautious in terms of opening up fully,” said Openshaw.

David Spiegelhalter, chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at Cambridge university, said the government’s decision to chart a different path to the other home nations “was definitely a gamble”, adding that it “had got away with it, probably because most people have acted in a very responsible way”.

But Sir John Bell, Regius professor of medicine at Oxford, disagreed. “It was clear that was going to be fine: you only had to look at the South African data and you could see the disease come at a massive speed before disappearing just as fast — and in between nobody ended up in the intensive care units.”

He added: “It’s really difficult to say if what Scotland and Wales did actually made any difference at all.”

At 6.9 per cent, a higher proportion of the population of England is infected than the other parts of the UK in the week ending January 6. This compared with 5.7 per cent in Scotland, 5.6 per cent in Wales and 5.4 per cent in Northern Ireland.

The pattern is repeated in hospital admissions data, which show England on 35 daily admissions per 100,000 people, ahead of Scotland on 28, Northern Ireland on 16 and Wales on 14.

A record 4.3m Britons were infected with coronavirus in the first week of the year, the Office for National Statistics said on Friday, up from 3.7m infections in the week to December 31.

Chart showing that Covid prevalence and hospital admissions have been higher in England than the other UK nations over the last month

“There’s a clear view that we would have seen significantly higher rates of infection had we not had the measures and messaging connected to Plan B,” said Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, He said before the restrictions were removed there would need to be “absolutely” certainty about the level of risk involved.

Modelling produced for Sage by the University of Warwick suggested a “gradual decline in precautionary behaviour over four months” from the end date of Plan B could result in a Spring wave leading to 1000 and 2000 daily hospitalisations.

“Precise timing and magnitude of this exit wave is highly dependent on both population behaviour and the scale of the current wave,” the researchers added.

Chart showing that mobility levels dipped sharply across the UK in late December

Covid deaths have continued to climb across the UK, however, reaching a daily average of 207 between January 3 and 9, equivalent to 16 per cent of last winter’s peak, after remaining below 10 per cent throughout December.

Thomas House, professor of mathematical sciences at the University of Manchester and a member of the SPI-M modelling group, cautioned that it was “not clear” Omicron had “turned the corner” in the oldest age groups.

“I don’t think people should feel like this is going to go on and on and on, but we shouldn’t think it will just be an explosion and then disappear either,” said House.

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