Coronavirus cases, hospital admissions and deaths will continue to fall as the UK has passed the peak in the current wave of the pandemic, England’s chief medical officer has said.
Professor Chris Whitty said that “provided people continue to follow the guidelines”, all four nations were on the “downward slope”.
But he stressed that though rates are coming down, they remain “incredibly high” – and could rise quickly – plunging the NHS “back into trouble extraordinarily fast”.
“I think that most of my colleagues think we are past the peak,” Prof Whitty told a Downing Street press conference.
“Now that doesn’t mean you could never have another peak. But, at this point in time, provided people continue to follow the guidelines, we’re on the downward slope of cases, of hospitalisations and of deaths, in all four of the nations of the United Kingdom.
“So I think, we do think, at this point, this peak at least, we are past.”
Prof Whitty said, however, that the number of people in hospital is still higher than in the first peak in April last year. He also warned that the number of deaths would “stay high for quite some time”.
His comments were echoed by Boris Johnson who warned that the level of infection is still “forbiddingly high” and that it is too soon to relax current restrictions.
The Prime Minister said: “Though today there are some signs of hope – the numbers of Covid patients in hospital are beginning to fall for the first time since the onset of this new wave – the level of infection is still alarmingly high.
“The wards of our NHS are under huge pressure with more than 32,000 Covid patients still in hospital.”
Mr Johnson also praised the “colossal” effort of health workers who have helped vaccinate more than 10 million people – almost one in five adults – against Covid-19 in the UK.
He said the vaccines appear to reduce death and serious illness from the main strains of coronavirus – but expressed concern about the reluctance of people in some communities to get the vaccine.
“We have been worried about vaccine hesitancy in some parts of the country in some communities,” the Prime Minister said.
“That is unquestionably an issue and we are doing everything we can to encourage people to come forward, to give them all the confidence they need. They should have confidence – it’s a great thing to get a vaccine.”
He said the Government was focusing on vaccinating everybody as fast as possible and then “taking a view on the interaction between that and the prevalence of the disease”.
“At the moment the level of infection is still forbiddingly high for us to imagine the relaxation of the current guidelines,” he said.
It came as:
– A further 1,322 people died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Wednesday, the Government said, while there were another 19,202 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK.
– People across the country clapped outside their homes at 6pm in honour of Captain Sir Tom Moore, the 100-year-old who raised almost £33 million for NHS charities by walking laps of his garden.
– Baroness Dido Harding, head of NHS Test and Trace, said around 20,000 people a day contacted by the Test and Trace system are not fully complying with instructions to self isolate.
– Transport Secretary Grant Shapps insisted that implementing tougher Australia-style border closures would not help the UK tackle the coronavirus pandemic because of the proximity to continental Europe.
– Social distancing may need to continue until spring 2022 even with effective coronavirus vaccines, Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia (UEA), said in an interview with the PA news agency.
– Office for National Statistics data of blood studies from private households suggested around one in seven people in England would have tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies by mid-January.
Meanwhile, the team behind the Oxford University/AstraZeneca jab has said vaccines against new coronavirus variants should be ready by October.
In a media briefing hosted by AstraZeneca, Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said work on designing a new vaccine could be completed rapidly.
It comes after studies have shown that variants of coronavirus with the worrying E484K mutation could make vaccines less effective, though they are still expected to offer good protection against illness and severe disease.
The mutation is found in the South African variant of the virus, which has prompted surge-testing in eight postcode areas of England where community transmission is feared.
It has also been detected in Bristol in the variant first identified in Kent, and in Liverpool in a new variant of the original pandemic strain.
Prof Pollard said: “I think the actual work on designing a new vaccine is very, very quick because it’s essentially just switching out the genetic sequence for the spike protein, for the updated variants.
“And then there’s manufacturing to do and then a small-scale study.
“So all of that can be completed in a very short period of time, and the autumn is really the timing for having new vaccines available for use rather than for having the clinical trials run.”
Sir Mene Pangalos, executive vice president of biopharmaceuticals research and development at AstraZeneca, said: “Our ambition is to be ready for the next round of immunisations that may be necessary as we go into next winter. That’s what we’re aiming for.”
He continued: “We’re very much aiming to try and have something ready by the autumn. So, this year.”
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