Warning that potential autumn Covid wave could see 1,000 hospital admissions per day
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Professor Neil Ferguson, infectious disease modeller and epidemiologist from Imperial College London, said current case rates are “sobering” heading into September – when mixing will increase as schools return.
However, he added it is “unlikely” that any surge in hospital admissions will lead to levels of deaths seen earlier this year thanks to the vaccination programme.
He said a surge in cases will not be stopped through lockdowns, but instead population immunity.
His comments came after rules were eased in England so fully-vaccinated adults will no longer have to isolate if they come into contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19.
Professor Ferguson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that case numbers have “plateaued” at around 30,000 per day, adding: “That’s a slightly sobering situation to be in coming into September.
“Our contact rates are about half of normal levels, and in school holidays children don’t have that many contacts.
“And we’ll be reopening schools, people will be going back to offices in September.
“So we still have the potential of quite a large wave of infection in September, October.”
As of Monday, there had been a further 28,438 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK, the Government said.
Other figures showed the number of coronavirus patients in hospital in England has risen to its highest level in five months.
There were 5,429 coronavirus patients in hospital on Monday, according to NHS England.
The figure is up 6.5% from the previous week and is the highest number of beds occupied by coronavirus patients in England since March 16.
Prof Ferguson added: “What we can be confident in is vaccination is protecting people against the most severe disease – so it’s very unlikely we’ll see levels of deaths, for instance, comparable with what we saw this January.
“The real question is more important, frankly, than the numbers of cases… is what does that do to NHS demand and admissions to hospitals? And in the worst-case scenarios we could be getting, probably not up to January levels, but still at levels of well over 1,000 admissions per day potentially.
“Which does stress the health system and we already have very long backlogs in the health system – any stress on it is is challenging.”
Last week, Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, suggested the concept of herd immunity is “not a possibility” due to the more transmissible Delta variant of the virus.
He referred to the idea as “mythical” and warned that a vaccination programme should not be built around the idea of achieving it.
Asked about the remarks, Prof Ferguson said: “To some extent we have this population immunity which is putting this downward pressure on virus – whether it’s ever going to be enough to stop transmission is an open question; we may move to a much more kind of endemic situation or hopefully low-level transmission in the population.
“And we know that immunity wanes over time so we’ll probably have to top up vaccination at some point.”
Meanwhile, Prof Ferguson said changes to self-isolation rules could lead to a “little” increase in cases if people do not get tested when asked to do so.
From Monday, people in England who have had both doses of a coronavirus vaccine, or are under 18, no longer have to spend 10 days in quarantine if they are a contact of a positive case, a change which has been hailed by Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid as “another step back towards normality”.
They are advised to take a PCR test, but that is not compulsory and they do not have to self-isolate while they wait for the result.
People who test positive are still legally required to self-isolate.
Professor Stephen Reicher, from the University of St Andrews and a member of the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviours (Spi-B) which advises the Government, told Sky News the vaccines are “not perfect”, adding: “You can still be hospitalised, you can still get infected, you can still infect others.
“So I think it’s really important to say to people that having a PCR test is absolutely vital – it should be more than just ‘Do it if you want to do it’.”
Self-isolation rules were also eased in Northern Ireland on Monday, and had already been relaxed in Wales and Scotland.