Dr Michael Head, from the University of Southampton, warned cases from early January would likely result in deaths “peaking” around the end of this month, adding: “We will see several more record-breaking days in terms of newly-reported deaths.”
It comes as ministers continue to thrash out plans for easing lockdown restrictions. The first areas could be moved into Tier 4 in early March, The Telegraph reports, with only minimal further relations expected before Easter.
Daily testing in schools to be put on ice
The daily testing of pupils and teachers in secondary schools should be “paused” as the balance between the risks and benefits is “unclear”, according to Public Health England (PHE).
The decision comes after the new variant has shown to have higher rates of transmission and a higher secondary attack rate, which “increases the risk of transmission everywhere, including in school settings”.
A statement from PHE and NHS Test and Trace says: “In light of this changing situation, we now recommend that the rollout of daily contact testing within schools is paused, other than for schools involved in further evaluation.
“This will enable the further detailed evaluation of changing circumstances including, potentially, lower infection rates and modelling work required to understand the benefits of daily contact testing in the this new phase of the pandemic.
“Schools should continue to test their staff regularly (twice-weekly where possible, in line with recommendations for other workforces that need to leave the home to work) and test pupils twice upon return to school, as has been the case since the start of January.”
Hospital pressures to continue ‘well into spring’
Dr Daniele Bryden, vice-dean of the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine, said pressure would continue on hospitals “well into the spring”.
“The fact that people perceive that intensive care units up and down the country are coping doesn’t mean that we have actually not been overwhelmed, because we have,” she told Sky News.
“NHS staff have been transferring patients across the country for critical care, we have been using other staff groups to help us deliver care and intensive care nurses have been looking after significantly more patients than they normally would do.
“So it’s an adjustment of the term ‘coping’, I think, really.”
Up to 90% of Brits still at risk of severe illness and long Covid – Sage expert
Professor Calum Semple, a member of the Government’s Sage scientific advisory panel, said it was “not the time to relax” restrictions and agreed some measures may be required next winter.
Prof Semple, speaking in a personal capacity, told Sky News: “I think this is a fair and honest representation of the state of where we are at present.
“One in eight to one in 10 people have had this illness and, although we have vaccinated the most very susceptible people, there are a large number of people – perhaps 80 to 90 per cent of the population – (who) are still susceptible to getting severe disease that would cause hospitalisation and put them at risk of long Covid.
“I completely agree this is not the time to relax.”
He warned that if the NHS was not protected, there would be knock-on effects on other vital public services such as police and fire brigades.
“It’s not just the NHS we are talking about supporting here – levels of sickness within society as a whole, if left unchecked, would rise and cause greater problems in society.”
‘Science is going to get us out of this’ – Vallance
Sir Patrick Vallance said it would have been “completely astonishing if everything had been done perfectly” during the pandemic but, looking back, there were “situations where clear communications would have helped”, including reaching certain groups.
On the issue of herd immunity, Sir Patrick said we “may not get to actually perfect herd immunity with vaccines but you are probably going need 70 per cent plus of the population to be immune for that to occur (either through vaccination or natural immunity).
“But every degree of immunity in the population makes it more difficult for the virus to spread, makes it a bit easier for things to return to normal, so I don’t think it’s an absolute, but total herd immunity is going to require very high levels of vaccine cover.”
In a direct message to the public, Sir Patrick, who revealed his son is a teacher, said: “There’s light at the end of the tunnel, science is going to get us out of this, and we’re on the way.
“We need to carry on doing what we’re doing and a big thank you to everybody.
“It’s really tough to keep these restrictions in place, it’s really tough on children, it’s really tough on all of us.
“Please keep going because if we can keep this under control, if we can drive these numbers down, that’s what’s going to get us out of this sooner, that’s what’s going to allow the vaccines to take effect and have the consequences that we want, and that’s what’s going to allow us ultimately to open up.”
Patel ‘working on’ getting police into vaccine priority group
Home Secretary Priti Patel said she was working on ensuring police were ready to be prioritised for a vaccine.
The comments come after Metropolitan Police Commissioner Dame Cressida Dick said she was “baffled” about why frontline officers were not closer to the front of the queue to receive the vaccine.
Asked whether she wanted to see police “bumped up the queue”, Ms Patel told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It is police, fire and other frontline workers, and the Health Secretary and myself are working to absolutely make that happen – I’ll be very clear about that.
“This isn’t just something we are thinking about. There is a lot of work taking place in Government right now.
“If the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) says that is a possibility, we can make it happen. We have the supply, the logistical plans in place – we will absolutely work to make that happen.”
‘Go hard, early and broad’ if you want to get on top of a pandemic – Vallance
Sir Patrick was asked what could have been done differently to tackle the pandemic from the outset.
“We will have got some things right and some things wrong, and we’ve learned a lot as we’ve gone through this, and we know a lot more about the virus today than we did then, for sure,” he said.
“I think there is a very simple series of recommendations which I’ve been pushing continuously and I’ll continue to do so, which is the lesson is: go earlier than you think you want to, go a bit harder than you think you want to, and go a bit broader than you think you want to, in terms of applying the restrictions.
“I’m afraid that’s a grim message but that is what the evidence says – you’ve got to go hard, early and broader if you’re going to get on top of this. Waiting and watching simply doesn’t work.”
He said there were so many cases in the UK by March that restrictions such as quarantining people as they came into the country would not “have made any difference at that time”.
Vaccines can’t do ‘heavy lifting’ for us – we must stick to lockdown rules
Asked if the lockdown would be kept in place if infection figures dropped, Sir Patrick said: “The advice at the moment is vaccines are not going to do the heavy lifting for us at the moment, anywhere near it.
“This is about, I’m afraid, the restrictive measures which we’re all living under and carrying on with those.
“The numbers are nowhere near where they need to be at the moment, they need to come down quite a lot further – we need to make sure we stick with it.
“You go for a walk in the park or something, life looks normal; you go for a walk in a hospital, if you work in a hospital, you will see life not looking normal at all.
“This is a really difficult, dangerous situation we’re in, and we need to get the numbers down, so I don’t see a release of these measures as being a sensible thing to do in the short term.”
He said it was hoped that as the vaccine took effect and numbers dropped, it would be possible to start a gradual release of some of the measures.
“But I think it’s important to recognise this is not going to be a sort of big bang, ‘great, take the lid off, everything’s fine, we can all go back to normal’.
“This is going to be a slow release, monitoring carefully, understanding the effects.”
Don’t visit loved-ones inside care homes even if they’ve had both jabs – Vallance
Asked whether indoor care home visits were safe if residents had been given two doses of the vaccine, or if there was testing plus one dose of the vaccine, Sir Patrick said: “This is a horrible situation, and many of us have got relatives who are in care homes and how difficult it is not to be able to see them and not to be able to do the things that we all wish to do – the normal human things – but I’m afraid my answer to this question is no, it’s not safe.
“And we have to know that with the levels of infection as they are at the moment we have to stick to the rules to get the levels down, and that means not jumping the gun.
“This is not the time to be relaxing any measures at all, I’m afraid, and care homes have got done a good job of getting rules in place… and we have to stick with that for a bit longer – however difficult, however personally challenging that is, I’m afraid that is what we need to do at the moment.”
He said it would be “tricky” to allow visits unless community infection dropped much lower, adding: “We’re at really high levels.”
He added: “I’m afraid this is absolutely not the time to be talking about relaxing measures (in care homes).”
Vaccines won’t get cases under control now – ‘hands, face, space’ will
Sir Patrick said face masks were important for preventing spread from those who were infected and were important in crowds and for indoor mixing.
He added: “Vaccines – which are going to be so important in the long run – vaccines are not going to get the numbers under control now.
“The things that are going to get the numbers under control now are hand hygiene, keeping distance, not socialising, staying at home, wearing masks in situations where you have to be out.
“These are the things that are going to keep the numbers down now and the things we absolutely need to focus on because numbers are very high still.”
Inequalities faced by BAME groups is a ‘tragedy’ – Vallance
On Israel’s claims that efficacy from the first dose of the Pfizer vaccine may be as low as three per cent, Sir Patrick said studies showed that from day 10 after vaccination to 21 days and beyond, it was “much more like 89 per cent”, though he admitted “when you get into real-world practice things are seldom quite as good as clinical trials”.
He added: “It probably won’t be as high as that in practice, but I don’t think it’ll be as low as the figures you’ve just given.”
In a Q&A on Sky News, Sir Patrick also addressed why black, Asian and ethnic minority groups had not been made a priority group for the vaccine.
“I think there’s a tragedy and the tragedy is relating to inequality, and it’s also relating to black, Asian and minority ethnic groups, where we know there’s an increased risk, for sure,” he said.
“The prioritisation that the JCVI (Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation) has done has been based on the highest risk and the highest risk factor for this is age.”
But he said there was a need for a “real campaign to make sure we reach those harder to reach groups”, including people who may be hesitant to have a vaccine.
More on those inequalities here: