The UK doesn’t have much “headroom” for rising Covid-19 cases before the NHS is “heavily stressed,” a government advisory expert told MPs.
Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) at Imperial College London, said the political decision to “live with Covid” was behind the current transmission rate in the UK, which is higher than many other countries.
He also reiterated his belief that the UK was too slow to lock itself down last fall, a decision that cost lives.
Prof. Ferguson suggested that the government’s Plan B to fight Covid, which brings back mandatory face masks, introduces Covid passports and encourages people to work from home, could be triggered if hospital admissions are currently around 600 Reach 1,200 per day.
He told the all party group on coronavirus: “We start with a fairly high incidence, so we don’t have much room for increases.
“For example, if we compare the incidence of Covid cases per day in France, Germany, Spain, Italy and Portugal, there is a much lower level than us so they can afford to see some increase in transmission that they may see. ”well, without placing an undue burden on the health system.
“We’re much closer to the limit of what the NHS can handle. We’re going to get to Plan B, I think that’s what Whitehall and the policy makers are doing, this limited margin. “
He said that modeling has a high level of unpredictability but added, “We could see persistent flat incidence, even a slow decline, if we bring boosters out quickly.
“So there is no guarantee that we will definitely see a big winter surge, but we cannot afford too much winter surge right now until the NHS is really badly hit.”
When asked what other countries are doing and whether the UK wants to keep the number of cases low, Prof. Ferguson said: “The government has clearly said it’s not really science here, it’s a political judgment, they want to live with Covid.
“Your main criterion for action is additional pressure on the NHS.”
Prof. Ferguson later said the government’s winter plan was a template and did not specify when various escalation measures would take place.
He said, “I should say there is a lot of work going on in governments right now, involving academic groups like my own and many others, putting more meat on the bones and directing questions like ‘how fast’ answer Do we have to act? ‘
“I think lessons have been learned.
“Right now in the UK we have (at) 600 hospital admissions a day for Covid.
“I think if we saw this double it would be the kind of level we’d have to think about moving to Plan B at.
“The lesson we have learned is that when you see an uptrend and it lasts for a long period of time, you have to run ahead.”
But he added that if there is a “sudden, rapid upswing”, “we need to act more intensely than if we see a gradual increase”.
Prof. Ferguson, whose modeling was instrumental in the UK lockdown in March 2020, also told MPs that the number of people who have died from Covid is inextricably linked to when governments intervened to lock down.
He said: “Looking back at the pandemic, historically the most important factor in mortality has been the timing of interventions relative to the stage of the epidemic reached in a given country.
“And that certainly explains almost all of the variations that I saw in the first wave of broadcast across Europe.
“I think that many countries acted way too slowly last autumn.
“I would not single out Great Britain clearly. Of course, some countries, like Denmark and others, acted promptly, but many of the big nations in Europe have acted rather slowly. “
He said the UK was unlucky to see an early spike in alpha variant cases and has been the hardest hit country in Europe by the delta variant.
“So some of these things are, shall we say, bad luck, and I think I’ve been much more satisfied with the timeliness of the interventions since about December last year than I was before.
“But it still depends on the timing.”
Prof. Ferguson said that as most countries eased social distancing to a large extent, the most important factors for the next few months “weighed levels of population immunity against levels of contact rates in the population.”
He said the UK is now behind Spain, Portugal and “probably even France and the Netherlands” in terms of population immunity.
However, people in the UK did not see each other and had the same contact they had before the pandemic, which helped the situation.
“I don’t think we will be able to make reliable predictions about what the next few months will bring, (but) the main uncertainties are: What will happen to the immunity of the population – we know they will in time subsides; what will happen to the contact rates in the population; and superimposed on top of this the climate-related seasonality of the transmission – which we do not fully understand either. “
Prof. Ferguson added, “Personally, I think it is unlikely that we will see a very large wave comparable to what we saw in the second wave last year, but we could still see a sizeable transmission wave, and the real challenge will be scale. “That puts a strain on the NHS where capacity is limited.”
The expert told MPs that the government could do “number one” to overcome the “emergency” of the pandemic, “increase vaccination coverage, increase vaccination coverage”.
He added that he believes the country will experience seasonal flare-ups over the next few years that “will challenge the health system on top of the flu and everything else”.
He added, “Whether we will have to rely on any level of mitigation beyond vaccination in a few years’ time remains to be seen.”
Martin McKee, professor of European public health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, also told MPs that the UK “does not do well” when compared to other European countries in terms of cases or daily deaths.
“In terms of vaccine uptake, we were good leaders in the beginning, but we have fallen significantly behind, to be around 66% of the total population,” he added.
Portugal is at 85%, Spain at around 78% and “France is catching up quickly”.
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