Health

Coronavirus: UK’s Covid crisis ‘will be over’ if vaccines still keep people out of hospital

Sir Andrew Pollard, one of the professors behind the Oxford jab, told MPs in a meeting about coronavirus: ‘We are going to have to live with it’

Britain’s Covid crisis ‘will be over’ if vaccines still keep people out of hospital even when they catch the Indian ‘Delta’ variant or future versions of the coronavirus, one of Oxford’s jab-makers said today.

Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, chief of the Oxford Vaccine Group that made and trialled the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, said that coronavirus would never go away but it wouldn’t cause disaster if the jabs continue to work.

Speaking in a meeting with MPs on the science committee in Parliament he said that, if vaccines break the link between infections and mass deaths, ‘we will reach a point where we stop looking at what’s happening in the community’.

He cautioned that there will be a constant stream of new variants in the coming years and that most will evolve to try and get past vaccine immunity, but jabs should still work and they can continue to be updated.

He said: ‘If that very high protection against hospitalisation continues, despite spread in the community, then the public health crisis is over. And so far, up to Delta, we’re in a very good position as long as we’ve got people vaccinated.’ 

Sir Andrew’s comments were latest in a line of scientific voices warning people that Britain must learn to live with the virus even in a post-vaccine world.

Despite this, leaked SAGE documents suggest that some social distancing and measures like work from home, face masks and test and trace will have to stay in place even after lockdown rules come to an end in July. Peaks of future outbreaks ‘would be much higher’ if all the advice was abandoned completely, scientists warned.

Dr Susan Hopkins, a Public Health England infectious disease expert, cautioned in the same meeting that the true number of daily infections in the UK right now could be as high as 25,000, much higher than the 7,500 average positive tests.

She said: ‘It doesn’t take very much double to get to large numbers… But what we hope we won’t see – and I think we won’t because of vaccines – is the same number of hospitalisations.

In one gloomy prediction Dr John McCauley, a flu expert at the Francis Crick Institute in London, said the Covid death toll could still be as high as 45,000 per year when lockdown rules have ended completely. He told the i newspaper: ‘There’s no inherent reason why the virus will lose its virulence.’ 

But Government minister Michael Gove said on Times Radio yesterday: ‘We have to accept that this virus will circulate and it will be the case, unfortunately, that in winters to come we will find that people contract it or subsequent variants and they will fall ill.’

Covid has killed more than 150,000 people since the crisis began last spring, but the vaccines have shown to be extremely effective at preventing deaths - reducing fatalities by more than 90%.  Independent scientists seeking to manage expectations before restrictions are lifted told MailOnline that achieving zero Covid deaths going forward was 'impossible' and that the focus should be to bring them down to levels comparable with flu — which kills roughly 17,000 people in England annually (shown on graph). Source: Office for National Statistics and Public Health England

Covid has killed more than 150,000 people since the crisis began last spring, but the vaccines have shown to be extremely effective at preventing deaths – reducing fatalities by more than 90%.  Independent scientists seeking to manage expectations before restrictions are lifted told MailOnline that achieving zero Covid deaths going forward was ‘impossible’ and that the focus should be to bring them down to levels comparable with flu — which kills roughly 17,000 people in England annually (shown on graph). Source: Office for National Statistics and Public Health England

In the committee meeting this morning Sir Andrew, who was knighted last week for his work tackling Covid, said: ‘If we’re able to build immunity in our population and keep people out of hospital we will reach a point where we stop looking in this granular detail at what’s happening in the community because, if we do, we’ll just focus on it and worry because [the virus] will escape from vaccines… 

‘This will happen – it’s going to continue to happen. But in the end we’re going to have to come back to focusing on the really important public health issue, which is the hospitalisation and the death. 

‘WE LIVE IN A WORLD OF VARIANTS’: PHE BOSS SAYS THERE ARE 30+ COVID STRAINS IN UK 

There are at least 25 known Covid variants circulating in the UK and scientists are constantly monitoring them to see which ones might be dangerous, a Public Health England boss said today. 

Dr Susan Hopkins, infectious disease expert at the agency, told MPs: ‘I just wanted to highlight the point that we’re living in a world of variants now. 

‘Everything we see is a variation of the original and, actually, everything we see that’s going to live and not become extinct very rapidly has either got to have a transmissibility advantage or an immune evading advantage.

‘So the challenge, always, is trying to understand which one of these is going to do something as it emerges. We start following and monitoring them when we get to about 30 cases that we can see in the genome sequencing, but that’s not enough to give us real-life data on the impact of vaccines [or] on the impact of transmissibility.’

Dr Hopkins added: ‘We have about 25 under monitoring and eight under investigation at the moment… all of them have mutations that we’re concerned about but the mutations alone is not enough to predict whether it’s really going to impact on our journey through vaccines and impact on the public health risk of hospitalisation…

‘You would expect that you are going to be able to start to make an assessment when you’ve got thousands [of cases], rather than tens or hundreds… and, really, you need at least 100 cases in hospital.’

‘If transmission is disconnected by vaccine immunity from severe disease to a large extent, then we’ll need to monitor new variants perhaps if we need to design a new vaccine and so on, but we are going to have to live with it being in our communities and transmitting.’

He said it was inevitable that the coronavirus would continue mutating and that new variants would keep appearing forever as the virus adapts to the human immune system.

A virus can only keep circulating if it can be transmitted between living things and to do this it must be able to escape protections in the immune system, Sir Andrew said.

The vaccine chief told MPs: ‘What we’ve been waiting for over the last month with the Delta variant is to find out whether, with two doses of the vaccine, we have good protection against hospitalisation.

‘And the data that came out on Monday from Public Health England that show over 90 per cent protection against hospitalisation is incredibly reassuring in that regard.

‘That’s the key bit that we have to look at with future variants. If that very high protection against hospitalisation continues, despite spread in the community, then the public health crisis is over. And so far, up to Delta, we’re in a very good position, as long as we’ve got people vaccinated.

‘Of course, the WHO [World Health Organization] at the moment, with variants under investigation, we’re up to Kappa so there’s a lot more Greek alphabet letters still to go through. But hopefully we’ll still be in a good position when we get to Omega but we have to keep monitoring it because we don’t know yet.’

Dr Susan Hopkins said that all discussions about Covid now are about variants because almost none of the original ‘wild’ virus is left.

She said in the same meeting: ‘We’re living in a world of variants now. 

‘Everything we see is a variation of the original and, actually, everything we see that’s going to live and not become extinct very rapidly has either got to have a transmissibility advantage or an immune evading advantage.

‘So the challenge, always, is trying to understand which one of these is going to do something as it emerges. We start following and monitoring them when we get to about 30 cases that we can see in the genome sequencing, but that’s not enough to give us real-life data on the impact of vaccines [or] on the impact of transmissibility.’

She said there were more than 30 being investigated in the UK, as well as the four ‘variants of concern’ that are dominant.

And the transmissibility advantage of the Delta variant has led to thousands and potentially tens of thousands of new cases every day – significantly more than are being recorded by NHS Test & Trace, Dr Hopkins said.

‘What we are seeing at the moment are about 7,000 to 8,000 infections per day – that’s what we’re detecting,’ she said.

PHE's Dr Susan Hopkins said that all discussions about Covid now are about variants because almost none of the original 'wild' virus is left

PHE’s Dr Susan Hopkins said that all discussions about Covid now are about variants because almost none of the original ‘wild’ virus is left

‘But we know that is less than half of what the true infections are in the community and we’ve measured that out in a number of ways. So the estimate for current infections today is probably in the order of between 15,000 and 25,000 new infections a day. 

‘It doesn’t take very much double to get to large numbers… But what we hope we won’t see – and I think we won’t because of vaccines – is the same number of hospitalisations. 

‘So we will have a much, much greater amount of infection in the community, without seeing the same impact on hospitalisations. But the more infections we do have, the more impact there will be. 

‘If we say 90 per cent [vaccine] effectiveness that means 10 per cent could actually come into hospital. So that means we do need to have some measures in place – both social responsibility measures and the measures that are in place right now to try and hold that peak down, so that we can get as much vaccine into the individuals to reduce symptomatic disease, reduce transmission, then clearly the severity and hospitalisation.’      

The Government advisers’ comments come after independent experts yesterday said achieving zero Covid deaths was ‘impossible’ and that the focus should be to bring them down to levels comparable with flu — which kills roughly 17,000 people in England annually and up to 50,000 in a bad year.  

Boris Johnson and England’s chief expert advisers Professor Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance have all repeated the line that we will ‘have to learn to live with Covid’ this week, in what seems to be a concerted effort to take emphasis away from the daily death numbers. 

There has been fierce debate about what level of Covid deaths would be ‘tolerable’ when Britain emerges from the shutdown — but one of the Government’s top scientists, Professor Graham Medley, said it was ‘quite possible’ there could be hundreds per day after lockdown.  

Professor Karol Sikora, an expert in medicine at the University of Buckingham, told MailOnline: ‘All deaths are very emotional and upsetting… but it’s important we embrace Covid like we have other viruses because it will become a normal feature in society.

‘We should consider it a success if we bring it [Covid deaths] down to levels comparable with flu deaths every year. We will never achieve zero Covid.’ 

Cambridge University epidemiologist Dr Raghib Ali told MailOnline that once July 19 comes and most of the adult population have been given a vaccine: ‘It’s my view that we will be in as strong a position as we ever will be. Prolonging restrictions beyond that point doesn’t achieve much.’

Asked what an acceptable number of Covid deaths would be, he added: ‘If you look at deaths and excess deaths from influenza, the Government tolerates numbers up to about 50,000 [per year].’

Cabinet Office minister Mr Gove said: ‘Unfortunately there are respiratory diseases, including flu itself, which do every year result in an upsurge of people being taken into hospital, and in some cases suffering tragic consequences.’ In a separate interview with BBC Radio 4, he said ‘we’re going to have to learn to live with Covid’.

Learning to live with Covid could mean making some permanent lifestyle changes, SAGE files have revealed, with experts saying ‘baseline’ measures like mask-wearing and social distancing should remain for the long term.

Scientists on the advisory group said rules ‘are likely to be needed beyond the end of the current road map process,’ The Times reported, or resurgences of the virus could lead to a need to ‘reverse’ the reopening.

The Whitehall paper suggests that the government will stop short of urging workers to return to offices even after ‘Freedom Day’ finally arrives. There is also a suggestion that face masks will be needed in some settings long-term, as well as keeping post-travel isolation rules.

Anyone who has coronavirus symptoms will still be expected to isolate, according to the draft proposals. And fears have been raised that more restrictions will be needed if the disease surges again in the winter.

The document – seen by Politico – emerged as furious Tories predicted up to 70 MPs could inflict a bloody nose on Boris Johnson in a crunch lockdown vote tonight. The PM is facing a bruising revolt from his own benches as the Commons is asked to approve the delay of ‘Freedom Day’ until July 19.

Michael Gove

Boris Johnson

Michael Gove (today, left) said that while ministers need to do ‘everything we can to protect people’, it was important for the public to ‘accept’ that there would continue to be Covid deaths when the country unlocks on July 19. Boris Johnson (pictured today, right) said we will ‘have to learn to live with Covid’ at last night’s press conference

Coronavirus: UK's Covid crisis 'will be over' if vaccines still keep people out of hospital

Coronavirus: UK's Covid crisis 'will be over' if vaccines still keep people out of hospital

Daily UK figures show 7,673 people tested positive for the virus, 184 patients were admitted to hospital and 10 people died. The data also shows that 41.8million people have been given their first dose of a vaccine, while 30.2million have received their second

Daily UK figures show 7,673 people tested positive for the virus, 184 patients were admitted to hospital and 10 people died. The data also shows that 41.8million people have been given their first dose of a vaccine, while 30.2million have received their second

Coronavirus: UK's Covid crisis 'will be over' if vaccines still keep people out of hospital

How many carers have been vaccinated in YOUR area? 

Fewer than 40 per cent of care home staff in parts of London have been fully vaccinated against Covid, according to official data ministers may use to justify controversial decision to make jabs compulsory for staff.

No10 will formally announce the controversial measure later this week, with 1.5million people working in social care told to get inoculated within 16 weeks — or face losing their jobs.

But officials have faced backlash over the move, with care home providers worried it will make it even harder for them to recruit new staff amid ongoing shortages. Ministers, however, say the move will save lives.

No decision has yet been made on whether vaccination should be made mandatory for the 1.4million who work for the NHS. A separate consultation on that is to be launched, it was also revealed today.

NHS England figures show 83.7 per cent of carers looking after elderly residents have had their first jab, meaning nearly 80,000 are still to be reached.

Meanwhile, data also shows just 68.7 per cent are fully vaccinated. But rates vary wildly across the country, and are as low as 38.5 per cent in Haringey, north London.

Ministers have been given fresh impetus to get wide vaccine coverage after the rapid growth of the Indian variant, which is at least 80 per cent more infectious than the Kent version and twice as likely to put unvaccinated people in hospital.

The Delta strain also makes a single vaccine dose significantly weaker, meaning two shots are crucial to protect people and prevent them from spreading the virus.

The poor coverage in London’s care homes comes despite the fact carers were first offered the jab in December, after being put at the top of the priority list due to their close dealings with the elderly and frail, who are at a huge risk of Covid.

MailOnline’s analysis of the statistics show Hackney in east London has the lowest uptake among care home staff — who were part of the original priority groups for vaccination back in December. Just 214 out of 321 eligible staff (66.7 per cent) accepted the offer of a jab in the six months since their invite.

Five areas of the country — four of which are in London — have first dose uptake rates of less than 70 per cent.

For comparison, six areas of the country have uptake rates of more than 90 per cent and second doses have been handed out to more than 80 per cent of staff in eight areas of the country.

It is not clear what levels of Covid deaths the country can expect when lockdown is ended next month, and this has been made less clear due to the outbreak of the highly transmissible Indian variant.

That strain has proven to be at least 60 per cent more infectious than the Kent version and twice as likely to put unvaccinated people in hospital. 

But two doses of the jabs are extremely effective against the mutant virus, reducing hospitalisations by up to 96 per cent. 

The Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warned there could have been 250 to more than 500 deaths per day in the third wave this summer if Step 4 of the roadmap out of lockdown went ahead as planned on June 21.

The group did not provide clear projections for what effect delaying the unlocking until July 19 will have on deaths, but its estimates around hospitalisations show the four-week gap could shrink admissions by more than half.

Prominent SAGE member Professor Graham Medley warned that, even with the extra breathing room the delay gives, Britain could still suffer hundreds of Covid deaths every day later in the year. 

Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at Reading University, said this was possible because there will still be millions of people who are vulnerable to the disease even when the entire country is vaccinated.

A small percentage of people who get the jab will still catch and die from Covid, usually because they are frail and have compromised immune systems.  

Dr Clarke told MailOnline: ‘Even if you’ve got a vaccine that cuts deaths by more than 90 per cent, that still leaves almost 7million people not protected.

‘Then there will be even more people who get infected but do not get seriously ill. So that still means lots and lots of virus circulating which poses a risk to those vulnerable 7m.’

But he said emphasis should be taken away from the Covid death figures and focused on NHS capacity, which he said was now the most important metric.

Keith Neal, a professor in infectious diseases at the University of Nottingham, said that once the adult population had been vaccinated with at least once dose against Covid it was no longer the Government’s responsibility to try to save every life.

‘We can’t stay in lockdowns forever, people need to make their own risk assessments. If people are worried about Covid or think they might be vulnerable, then they might decide not to meet up with others or socially distance.’

Backbench Tory MPs, including former prime minister Theresa May and Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group (CRG), criticised the Government for delaying the June 21 unlocking by a month, saying it was moving away from its goal of protecting the NHS. They said Britons had to learn to live with the virus.

However, other experts have said it is the Government’s duty to do prevent all ‘avoidable’ deaths and warned ministers against becoming cocky about the virus. 

Professor Gabriel Scally, a public health expert at the University of Bristol, told MailOnline: ‘What’s an acceptable level of road traffic accidents? We don’t accept those deaths we have inquests to find out what went wrong and how can we put it right.

‘Like any infectious disease it’s our duty to do whatever we can to protect people from it. If we don’t take sensible  action and people get ill then we’re being careless with people’s lives.’

Meanwhile, millions more people in the Midlands and North West of England are being urged not to travel or meet people indoors in an attempt to curb the spread of the Indian Covid variant.

In guidance released last night, roughly 3.6million residents in Birmingham, Liverpool, Warrington and parts of Cheshire were asked to minimise their movements in and out of the affected areas, which are recording higher than average levels of the mutant strain.

But Mr Johnson made no mention of the fresh advice in his dramatic Downing Street press conference last night, where he confirmed England’s final unlocking would be pushed back by four weeks amid fears the mutant strain could overwhelm hospitals. 

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