Health officials in South Africa say its fourth wave has passed after a dip in infections; Britain is in a better position in the fight against Covid than it was at the end of 2020, Boris Johnson says.
NHS chief: ‘government needs to be ready to introduce tighter restrictions at real speed’
Part of the reason that the airwaves in the UK this morning have featured a lot of chatter that things aren’t so serious with the Omicron variant is because The Times lead their front page today with a story “No need for more Covid curbs, say NHS chiefs”. They opened:
NHS chiefs do not believe that the threshold for new Covid-19 restrictions has been crossed despite a surge in hospital admissions.
The number of patients with the coronavirus on wards in England rose to 11,452 yesterday, the highest since February and up 61 per cent in a week.
While concerned by the increase in admissions, NHS leaders have been reassured by the fact that serious illness among the elderly has not risen significantly.
They then quoted Chris Hopson, the head of NHS Providers, saying:
Although the numbers are going up and going up increasingly rapidly, the absence of large numbers of seriously ill older people is providing significant reassurance. But they are aware that this may change after the Christmas period.
Trust CEOs know that the government has a high threshold to cross before it will introduce extra restrictions and can see why, in the absence of that surge of severely ill older people, that threshold hasn’t been crossed yet.
Hopson has been asked about this on the BBC Radio 4 programme this morning, and this is what he said, according to PA Media (with my emphasis on the two key lines):
It is the Government who sets the rules on restrictions, not the NHS. We still don’t know if a surge will come, and indeed we are exactly talking about the preparations we are making for that surge right now.
So, in terms of restrictions, I think we are in exactly the same place we’ve been for the past fortnight, which is the government needs to be ready to introduce tighter restrictions at real speed should they be needed.
And just to make the point that that is somewhat different to a headline that states NHS leaders think there is no need for more curbs – they may be needed at pace if the evidence warrants it.
And just one more important point, I think – it is worth remembering that it does take about a fortnight for any new restrictions to affect the level of hospital admissions, so the pattern of hospital admissions for the next fortnight has already been set.
Nervtag’s Prof Openshaw: Omicron so infectious ‘almost needs just a whiff of infected breath and you could get infected’
If you were thinking of heading out to celebrate New Year’s Eve tonight, this quote from Nervtag’s Prof Peter Openshaw on BBC Breakfast might give you pause for thought. PA Media quote him saying:
Omicron is so infectious. We’re lucky really that it wasn’t this infectious when it first moved into human-to-human transmission. We’ve had several iterations of this virus going through different stages of its evolution.
It has ended up being so infectious that it almost needs just a whiff of infected breath and you could get infected.
We’re in a relatively good position in countries like the UK but I think you have to remember that in many parts of the world the vaccination rates are only about 5%, and they’re being exposed to this very infectious virus with very little protection.
Omicron spread through Europe has sent Spain’s infection rate spiralling to record highs and decimated reservations at restaurants that had pinned their hopes on holiday season trade.
Reuters spoke to Juan Lozano, head waiter at the La Querida restaurant in Madrid’s Pozuelo neighbourhood, which was almost fully booked in early December. He said that now just four tables out of La Querida’s two dozen booked on New Year’s Day. “We all thought… we’d be able to make some money and pay off many things that are overdue,” he said.
Unlike other Spanish regions, which have imposed capacity limits, mandatory COVID passes and even a curfew in Catalonia, Madrid has not introduced any restrictions on eating out and socialising. But restaurants are still feeling the pinch.
“The outlook is horrendously bad,” said Lozano, insisting that the government must give more support to the sector. He complained that state-backed soft loans were not enough.
“People say ‘can’t you get a state credit?’ Yes but that’s a debt I have to pay back, isn’t it?”
Chris Hopson, the head of NHS Providers, which represents health trusts, has said on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that the use of extra capacity hubs at hospitals would be a recognition that there was an “emergency” situation needed to deal with Covid-19 admissions. PA Media quotes him saying:
The hubs are there to have super-surge capacity on top of that, so we really would be in an emergency if we were having to use them and therefore we would have to use an emergency staffing model, because we are very clear in the NHS: we don’t have the staff, the existing staff, to be able to staff these beds, so we would have to go into an emergency mode.
The important thing to understand is that what we would be using these hubs for – we wouldn’t be using these hubs for the most critically ill patients. What we would be doing is using them for patients who were effectively over the worst, heading towards discharge for home
Earlier Dr Azeem Majeed, the head of primary care and public health at Imperial College London, cast some doubt on the ability to staff the hubs that were announced by NHS England yesterday. He told Times Radio:
We saw when these hubs were established in March and April last year when the NHS struggled to find the staff to man those hospitals. Hopefully those won’t be needed, but if we do need those extra beds it will be a struggle to find the staff to deal with those patients – I’m not quite sure where those staff will come from given the fact hospitals are struggling now with their current workload.
NHS England has said it is creating new small-scale “Nightingale” facilities with up to 100 beds each at eight hospitals across the country. The first sites will be at Preston, Leeds, Birmingham, Leicester, Stevenage, St George’s in London, Ashford and Bristol.
Amid a lot of optimistic noises about evidence of the “mildness” of the Omicron variant and the modest rise in hospitalisations compared to cases so far in the UK, Professor Peter Openshaw, who sits on the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), has struck a more cautious note this morning on BBC Breakfast. PA Media quote him saying:
The latest figures show extraordinary rises in infection rates and this is before we’ve had time to see the full effect of what’s happened over Christmas.
The people currently who are very sadly dying of Covid were probably infected on average about 35 days ago, so this was really before Omicron really started to transmit.
It’s therefore too early to say what the impact of Omicron is going to be on more severe disease.
It’s mostly been circulating in children, in people in contact with children, and it’s now going to spread into older adults at much higher risk of severe disease and those with pre-existing illnesses.
I’m very, very glad that a very large majority of those have been triple-vaccinated because that gives you very good levels of protection, admittedly probably not for good but at least for a while.
Here’s a little bit more detail from Reuters on the moves in Israel to offer a fourth vaccine shot. Dan Williams reports that health minister Nitzan Horowitz said today the country will extend the offer of a fourth shot to elderly people in care facilities, citing their high exposure and vulnerability to infections.
An Israeli hospital administered fourth shots to a test group of health workers on Monday, in what it called the first major study into whether a second round of boosters will help contend with the Omicron coronavirus variant. Results are expected within two weeks.
A health ministry expert panel last week recommended that Israel offer a fourth shot of the vaccine developed by Pfizer/BioNTech to medical workers and those over 60 or with compromised immune systems.
You may recall British prime minister Boris Johnson’s words from 12 December, when he told the UK in a televised address:
A fortnight ago I said we would offer every eligible adult a booster by the end of January. Today, in light of this Omicron emergency, I am bringing that target forward by a whole month. Everyone eligible aged 18 and over in England will have the chance to get their booster before the New Year.
There then ensued a minor kerfuffle about the exact semantics of that. It certainly seemed to give the impression in some quarters that the prime minister was promising those booster jabs would be administered to everyone who wanted one, not just offered, although as you can see it was very tightly worded.
The government’s own Covid dashboard indicates that as of 29 December, 58.3% of those aged 12 and above have had a third booster jab.
Bipasha van der Zijde is a marketing and communications adviser at KIT Royal Tropical Institute, and she writes for us today that we can vaccinate 70% of the world against Covid by mid-2022:
Will freeing up intellectual property rights, often cited as a possible solution, bridge the widening gap? For a country to start producing vaccines from scratch would be a massive challenge. According to Benjamin Ongeri, a health supply chain specialist with Crown Agents in Kenya: “Countries like Kenya have begun this journey by targeting the final filling of vaccine vials locally which is still quite challenging given the need for state-of-the-art pharmaceutical manufacturing plants that will guarantee safe production with no chance of contamination.”
A lot more will be required in terms of technology transfer and building the expertise needed to fully produce vaccines locally, these cannot be achieved in the short to medium term.
The answer lies in global funding mechanisms such as Covax – provided they can guarantee a pre-planned availability of vaccines. More equitable distribution of the jabs on a structural basis with longer shelf lives will allow for realistic and efficient planning.
National Pharmacy Association: supply of tests in UK ‘still very patchy’
In the UK, National Pharmacy Association chairman Andrew Lane said more lateral flow tests are being distributed to pharmacies but supply is “still very patchy”, and he expects the test packs to be picked up “within the first few hours” of them being delivered today.
He added that pharmacy staff are facing abuse from patients frustrated by being unable to find a test. PA Media quote him telling BBC Breakfast:
I spoke to the managing director of Alliance Healthcare who are our wholesalers that distribute the tests into pharmacies, and she assured me that they are putting out two million a day and we are starting to see that come through.
It is still very patchy though, so I will say that not every pharmacy today will have a box but most pharmacies in the country will be having a box so we just ask the public to persevere, and also treat us with respect.
We have had a lot of abuse over the last couple of weeks when the tests haven’t been there, but teams are doing their very best to help the public with this.
A box will contain, I think, 54 tests and many of our members are reporting that that box is gone within the first couple of hours of arriving within the pharmacy.
In December 2019 the World Health Organization was told of a cluster of pneumonia cases in Wuhan, China. My colleagues Ashley Kirk and Pamela Duncan have produced these charts which show how Covid-19 has spread across the world since then.
Hong Kong detects community transmission of Omicron variant for first time
Hong Kong authorities have discovered cases of infection of the Omicron coronavirus variant in the community, Health Secretary Sophia Chan said. It marked the first local cases in about three months.
Chan told reporters, including Marius Zaharia of Reuters, that one of four air crew members testing positive after their return to Hong Kong had breached home quarantine rules by going to a restaurant, where he passed the virus to his father and a client sitting at another table.
Hong Kong had not recorded any coronavirus cases spread by community transmission since October.
Schools in Wales are being asked to prepare for the possibility of reopening in January for remote learning.
Yesterday First Minister Mark Drakeford explained in an interview with Wales Online that:
The first two days of term are planning days. What the education minister Jeremy Miles has asked schools to do is to plan for two possible futures: the one in which children can still be in the classroom, where there are sufficient staff to be there to be able to provide face-to-face learning, but to maximise the protection that can be put in place inside the classroom to keep students and staff as safe as possible.
But we recognise that there will be some schools where, because Omicron is so transmissible, there will be staff who will be ill so it won’t be possible for every child to be in the classroom and therefore that a return for some students for a shorter period of time as possible to online learning may have to be there as well.
This morning Cathy Owen reports for Wales Online that Laura Doel, director of head teachers’ union NAHT Cymru, has described remote learning as a “last resort”, and called for tests to be prioritised for schools. She said:
The availability of staff is the biggest threat to education in January. Without the workforce fit and well, learners cannot go back to the classroom. If regular LFTs are to be part of the package of mitigations it is vital that schools have a supply ready for reopening.
Another doctor, Dr Azeem Majeed, head of primary care and public health at Imperial College London, has also been on the airwaves in the UK this morning to say that NHS workers are struggling to access Covid-19 tests, and the government should prioritise key workers when distributing them. PA Media quote him telling Times Radio:
I struggled to get a test recently. I am required to test twice a week as an NHS worker but when I log on to the online site, there’s often none in stock.
It’s not just NHS staff but other key workers too, such as social care workers, police, fire service and so on, who need these tests as well so it is worrying that they’re in such short supply at the moment.
My view is that people in key groups, whether they’re healthcare workers or other key workers like public transport should be prioritised to ensure our NHS can function, our schools can function, that our society can function well.
Queensland in Australia is due to change travel restrictions into the state despite a surge in fresh Covid cases and criticisms the new requirements are “pointless” in states with large outbreaks.
From 11.59pm on Friday 31 December, travellers entering Queensland will be required to return a negative rapid antigen test (RAT) result within 72 hours before travel, rather than a negative PCR test.
The change in rules comes as the state recorded 3,118 new cases overnight, with the number of active infections rising to 11,697.
Evidence of a negative test result has to be uploaded to the Queensland Health website when applying for a border pass, with applicants making a declaration the information is correct.
However, the change raises questions about the accuracy and reliability of test results, as unlike PCR tests, the tests are not performed by trained professionals or analysed by and reported to a central authority.
Police commissioner Katarina Carroll said on Wednesday that from January those caught lying about a RAT result on their border declaration would face a heavy fine.
Read more of Royce Kurmelovs’ report here: Queensland’s new travel rule labelled ‘pointless’ as state faces fresh Covid surge
Hogmanay in Scotland will be marked for a second consecutive year with restrictions in place on the hospitality sector. Pubs will be able to stay open provided they have table service in place, but there will be no nightclubbing.
In her new year message, Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon has praised healthcare workers, saying:
Throughout this year, our health and care workers have continued to do an absolutely magnificent job. And those working on our vaccination programme have provided all of us with an incredible service. Thanks to their efforts – and also thanks to the sacrifices of people right across the country – earlier this year businesses were able to reopen.
The Omicron variant is a very significant threat. It means that at the moment, we need above all to keep each other safe. We all need to stay at home, far more than we would want to at this time of year. And we have asked that you minimise new year socialising as much as you can.
So this is not the Hogmanay we all wanted and hoped for. But I believe that we can still look ahead to 2022 with optimism.