Government science advisers and health care leaders have warned against abandoning England’s Plan B restrictions on homework and mask wear ahead of time, despite signs that infections and hospital pressure caused by the Omicron coronavirus variant have peaked.
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 declining. The devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales are also planning to relax the stricter restrictions they have introduced in response to the variant, including lifting capacity constraints on major events next week.
One senior Whitehall official told the FT that the latest data indicated that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson had made “the right call” to resist imposing more draconian, legal restrictions on social mixing in England, but warned: “We are not out of the woods yet”.
The latest minutes of the January 7 meeting of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies, published on Friday, warned that the wave “still has the potential to continue to grow nationally”, adding that the effect of the return to schools and workplaces “not yet known”.
It warned that reversing Plan B before the peak was reached could lead to changes in behavior and “increase the overall impact of this wave on hospitalizations”.
Covid hospital admissions are flat or declining in all UK countries and regions, with London, Wales and Northern Ireland all down at least 20 per cent since the recent high, according to the latest official regional data published on Friday.
Across the UK, an average of 2,243 Covid patients have been admitted in the past seven days, slightly down from a high of 2,287 in the week to 4 January. In London, daily average Covid surveys fell by 25 per cent from a peak of 416 on 31 December.
There have been signs of a slowdown in the increase in admission in North East England and Yorkshire, an area that has seen the highest growth recently. The number of Covid patients in the hospital has increased by less than 1 percent to 2,857 over the past 24 hours, a noticeable drop in daily growth of 5 percent earlier this week.
Meanwhile, separate data showed that a growing percentage of children admitted to the hospital with Covid were from the very youngest age group.
Over the past four weeks, 42 percent of pediatric Covid admissions were under the age of one, a noticeable increase from about 30 percent during previous waves, according to an Isaric / Co-CIN study presented to Sage. Children from the most needy backgrounds were the worst affected. However, researchers stressed that the babies were “not particularly ill” and that the average length of stay was about a third shorter than in the first wave.
Sage warned that hospital pressure “will remain high for some time” due to persistent high transmission and increasing infections in older and unvaccinated groups.
Peter Openshaw, professor of experimental medicine at Imperial College London and a government adviser, called for the remaining measures to do ‘careful relief’. “I would prefer to keep measures in place and to be careful in terms of fully opening up,” Openshaw said.
David Spiegelhalter, chairman of the Winton Center for Risk and Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge, said the government’s decision to pave a different path to the other homelands “was definitely a gamble”, adding that it “got away with it, probably because most people acted in a very responsible way”.
But Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford, did not agree. “It was clear that it was going to be good: you just had to look at the South African data and you could see how the disease came at a great speed before it disappeared just as quickly – and in between no one ended up in the intensive care units. . ”
He added: “It’s really hard to say whether what Scotland and Wales have done has made a difference at all.”
At 6.9 per cent, a larger part of England’s population is infected than the other parts of the UK in the week ending January 6. This compares 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 admission data, showing England at 35 daily admissions per 100,000 people, ahead of Scotland at 28, Northern Ireland at 16 and Wales at 14.
A record 4.3 million Britons were infected with coronavirus in the first week of the year, the National Statistics Office said on Friday, from 3.7 million infections in the week to 31 December.
“There is a clear view that we would have seen significantly higher infection rates if we had not had the measures and messages linked to Plan B,” said Chris Hopson, CEO of NHS Providers. He said before removing the restrictions, there would be “absolute” certainty about the level of risk involved.
Modeling produced by the University of Warwick for Sage suggested that a “gradual decrease in precautionary behavior over four months” from the end date of Plan B could lead to a spring wave that could lead to 1,000 and 2,000 daily hospitalizations.
“Exact timing and magnitude of this output wave are highly dependent on both population behavior and the scale of the current wave,” the researchers added.
However, Covid deaths continued to climb across the UK, reaching a daily average of 207 between 3 and 9 January, equivalent to 16 per cent from last winter’s high, after falling below 10 per cent throughout December.
Thomas House, professor of mathematical sciences at the University of Manchester and a member of the SPI-M modeling group, warned that it was “not clear” Omicron had “turned the corner” in the older age groups.
“I do not think people should feel that it goes on and on and on, but we should not think it will just be an explosion and then disappear,” House said.