Top experts today claimed that the end of the Covid crisis was ‘in sight’ as ministers claimed Britain is on a path to ‘living with’ the virus and Boris Johnson said the Government is ‘looking at’ cutting the self-isolation period again.
Dr David Nabarro, from the World Health Organisation, said coronavirus would pose a very difficult situation for the next three months ‘at least’ but insisted ‘we can see the end in sight’.
Meanwhile, Professor Graham Medley, No10’s chief modeller, warned Covid ‘can’t be an emergency forever’ as he said ‘Government decisions’ would need to be made about scrapping mass testing and vaccinations.
They are the latest scientists to suggest Britain is moving into a new phase of the coronavirus crisis now that it appears increasingly likely the NHS will cope without new restrictions.
Dr Clive Dix, the ex-chief of the UK’s vaccine taskforce, yesterday called for a return to a ‘new normality’ and for Covid to be treated like the flu now that the milder Omicron variant has a similar death rate.
Dr Dix, who was instrumental in acquiring the UK’s Covid jab supply, called for mass population-based vaccination to end in favour of a ‘targeted strategy’ aimed at the vulnerable.
There are also calls for routine testing to be scrapped to put an end to the self-isolation crisis plaguing businesses and vital services now that Omicron is causing little or no symptoms for most.
Writing in the Mail today, Professor Angus Dalgleish, an oncologist at St George’s University, said mass screening amounted to ‘national self-harm’
It came as the Prime Minister today hailed ‘great progress’ against the fourth wave but warned that the NHS is still under significant pressure and urged people to get booster jabs.
On a visit to a vaccination clinic in Uxbridge, he poured cold water on rumours that lateral flow tests could stop being free soon, saying they will stay ‘as long as necessary’.
And he tempered his optimism by stressing that ministers will follow the ‘science’ on whether quarantine can be cut again from seven days without causing another deadly spike in infections.
The government and NHS leaders appear increasingly confident that the Omicron wave will not overwhelm services.
Another 141,472 lab-confirmed cases were announced yesterday, but the figure fell for the fifth day in a row and the rate of increase seems to have slowed sharply.
Official data show hospitalisations are slowing across the country — with 2,000 being admitted on average each day in England, half of last January’s peak — and are already falling in London, which was first region to be hit by Omicron.
The number of patients on ventilators has also stayed flat, and overall occupancy levels are no higher than in the winters before the pandemic struck.
In a round of interviews earlier, Housing Secretary Michael Gove said the UK is ‘moving to a situation’ where it is ‘possible to say that we can live with Covid and that the pressure on the NHS and on vital public services is abating’.
However, he stressed that ‘we are not there yet’ and dismissed complaints that dire warnings about the possibility of huge numbers of deaths had been ‘scaremongering’.
Mr Johnson is said to be drawing up a new strategy for the transition away from restrictions, which would be implemented by March.
There is speculation it could see lateral flow tests withdrawn for non-high risk situations as well as shorter isolation.
But asked whether free LFDs will be abandoned soon, Mr Johnson said: ‘I think that we will use them as long as they are very important. There’s a similar argument to be had about the quarantine period…. The thing to do is look at the science.
‘We’re looking at that and we will act according to the science as we always have.
In other developments today:
- More NHS cancer patients will be treated in private hospitals under a deal struck with the sector to ‘safeguard’ against the staff absence crisis and rising Covid admissions;
- Clive Watson, chairman of the City Pub Group, questioned the continuing work-from-home guidance and said the review of measures due by January 26 is a ‘very good opportunity’ to change them;
- Mr Johnson has insisted he and Chancellor Rishi Sunak are looking at ways of easing the cost of living crisis as the economy struggles to recover from Covid.
On a visit to a vaccination clinic in Uxbridge, Boris Johnson poured cold water on rumours that lateral flow tests could stop being free soon, saying they will stay ‘as long as necessary’
Boris Johnson is said to be drawing up a new strategy for the transition away from restrictions, which would be implemented by March
In a round of interviews this morning, Housing Secretary Michael Gove said the UK is ‘moving to a situation’ where it is ‘possible to say that we can live with Covid and that the pressure on the NHS and on vital public services is abating’
Hospitalisations due to Covid fell in England yesterday, and are also dropping in the capital which was first to be hit by the variant in a promising sign for the rest of the nation
Dr Nabarro, the WHO’s special envoy on Covid, told Sky News that we need to ‘respect’ the virus but start transitioning to something closer to normal.
‘I’m afraid we are moving through the marathon but there’s no actual way to say that we’re at the end – we can see the end in sight, but we’re not there.
Catching a common cold may protect you from getting Covid, another study finds
Catching the common cold could also protect against Covid, yet more research has suggested.
Ever since the start of the pandemic, experts have speculated other coronaviruses — which tend to cause runny noses and sore throats — could offer some cross-reactive immunity.
But new real-world evidence has uncovered the ‘clearest evidence’ yet that immunity induced by colds can help fight off Covid.
People with higher levels of T cells from other seasonal coronaviruses were less likely to get infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid.
T cells are a key part of the immune system, and hunt down invading pathogens and stop them replicating within the body.
Imperial College London scientists studied 52 people who lived with someone who had tested positive for the virus. Half caught the virus, while the others managed to ward it off.
They took blood samples from the volunteers within days of being exposed to SARS-CoV-2, allowing researchers to determine their T cell levels.
Household contacts who did not test positive had ‘significantly higher levels’ of pre-existing coronavirus-fighting T cells, on average.
These T cells ‘targeted internal proteins within the SARS-CoV-2 virus rather than the spike protein to protect against infection’, the team said.
Professor Ajit Lalvani, one of the researchers, said: ‘Our study provides the clearest evidence to date that T cells induced by common cold coronaviruses play a protective role against SARS-CoV-2 infection.’
But experts warned people cannot rely on having had the common cold alone as protection against Covid and getting triple-jabbed remains ‘the best way to protect yourself’.
The findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, showed the cells attacked the virus’ internal proteins, not the spike protein, which the virus uses to enter human cells.
Professor Lalvani said it could pave the way for a universal vaccine that protects against multiple variants.
Current Covid vaccines produce an antibody response that attacks the virus and stops it binding to and infecting cells, but this response wanes over time.
The jabs also trigger T cell immunity which is much longer-lasting. Once someone becomes infected, T cells stop an infection becoming much worse by protecting against hospitalisation and death.
Vaccines recognise the spike protein on the outside of the virus based on the original Wuhan strain. But as Covid mutates over time, vaccines risk becoming less effective.
Omicron contains extensive mutations that have already cut the effectiveness of vaccines.
However, booster jabs have been found to boost protection against the variant to the equivalent of being double-jabbed against Delta.
But scientists fear that as Covid continues to spread and mutate, a version could emerge that jabs offer less protection against.
Professor Lalvani said the spike protein is under ‘intense immune pressure’ from the antibody-response triggered by vaccines, ‘which drives evolution of vaccine escape mutants’.
He added: ‘In contrast, the internal proteins targeted by the protective T cells we identified mutate much less.
‘Consequently, they are highly conserved between the various SARS-CoV-2 variants, including Omicron.
‘New vaccines that include these conserved, internal proteins would therefore induce broadly protective T cell responses that should protect against current and future SARS-CoV-2 variants.’
However, academics not involved in the small study warned it could be a ‘grave mistake’ to think anyone who previously had a cold caused by a coronavirus — which represent about one in 10 of all colds — is protected against Covid.
Dr Simon Clarke, a cellular microbiologist at the University of Reading, said the study adds to findings on how the immune system fights the virus.
But he said it ‘should not be over interpreted’. It is ‘unlikely’ the 150,000 people who’ve died within a month of testing positive for Covid ‘never had a cold caused by a coronavirus’, he said.
Dr Clarke said: ‘It could be a grave mistake to think that anyone who has recently had a cold is protected against Covid, as coronaviruses only account for 10 to 15 per cent of colds.
‘Similarly, there is no measurement of how much protection the reported effect gives people and a link is only hinted at, it has not been proven conclusively.’
Other studies uncovering a similar link have warned protection likely only lasts a short period of time because of how quickly immunity against the family of viruses that cause the cold last.
‘And there’s going to be some bumps before we get there.
‘And I can’t tell you how bad they’re going to be, but I can at least tell you what I’m expecting.
‘First of all, this virus is continuing to evolve – we have Omicron but we’ll get more variants.
‘Secondly, it really is affecting the whole world. And, whilst health services in Western Europe are just about coping, in many other parts of the world, they are completely overwhelmed.
‘And thirdly, it’s really clear that there’s no scope for major restrictions in any country, particularly poor countries.
‘People have just got to keep working and so there are some very tough choices for politicians right now.
‘It’s going to be difficult for the next three months at least.’
Asked about a suggestion that there could be coronavirus surges two or three times a year, Dr Nabarro added: ‘The way this virus is behaving, and has behaved really since we first met it, is that it builds up and then surges quite dramatically, and then it comes down again, and then surges again about every three or four months.
‘It’s difficult to use past behaviour to predict the future. And I don’t like doing that too much.
‘But I would agree that the pattern, I think, that is going to happen with this virus is continued surges, and living with Covid means being able to prepare for these surges and to react and really quickly when they occur.
‘Life can go on, we can get the economy going again in many countries, but we just have to be really respectful of the virus and that means having really good plans in place for dealing with the surges.’
Meanwhile, Professor Medley, an expert in infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine at chair of the SPI-M modelling group that feeds into SAGE, said that when Covid becomes an endemic disease, the Government will be able to make ‘cost-effective decisions about how it’s going to manage the disease to improve public health, rather than manage the disease to try and reduce its own risk of hospitals being overcrowded’.
Asked whether that could mean an end to free mass testing and free mass vaccinations, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘The decisions that the Government makes about vaccinating, for example against measles, are based upon decisions in terms of public health, but also the costs.
‘And I think to some extent that approach will become more and more likely as we go forward. Vaccines are really the things that are changing the landscape, both in terms of public health and in terms of decision making.
‘As ever, Government has to make a decision, balancing all these different views and different industries’ perspectives, to come up with what it feels to be the correct policy.
‘So we have an annual vaccination programme against influenza for example, we have childhood vaccination programmes against many other diseases, but we don’t, for example, vaccinate against chickenpox, and that decision is (made by) Government based on looking at all the aspects of the decision.’
Pressed on free tests, Prof Medley said: ‘I think that the value of the moment of getting free tests is that it does allow people to manage their risks. And we have seen since July, the number of submissions was roughly constant, sort of just under 1,000 a day, up until the beginning of December and that can really only come about if people are managing their risks and the free diagnostics have enabled that.’
Asked whether the Omicron wave is over in London but not elsewhere in the country, Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I think that at the moment the testing capacity issues, and the Christmas and the new year, mean that we can’t really rely on cases to tell us what’s going to happen exactly.
‘At the moment we are seeing a relatively high number of admissions, how long that continues, whether that goes up or goes down, I think is unknown at the moment.’
He said the Omicron virus itself is ‘less severe’ than Delta but it is ‘just as threatening’ due to its transmissibility.
Pressed on whether the nation was moving away from a situation where Covid-19 was an ’emergency’, Prof Medley said: ‘I think that that transition is absolutely true. It can’t be an emergency forever.
‘So at some point it will have to stop being an emergency but that is likely to be a phase out rather than an active point in time where somebody can declare the epidemic over.
‘It’s going to fade out and disappear much more slowly than that I think.’
But the Prime Minister insisted ‘Omicron is still out there, it is incredibly contagious’. ‘We’ve got to make sure that we see off Omicron, we are making great progress,’ he said.
‘The number of people who have been boosted is 36 million, 90% of over-50s have been done but there are still millions who need to do it.
‘Loads of people have had two jabs but they haven’t yet come forward for their boost and I say to everybody: join the movement.’
Amid a growing clamour for a further tweak to isolation rules, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi suggested yesterday that a reduction would ease staffing issues, and Chancellor Rishi Sunak is believed to be in favour of the move.
Tory former chief whip Mark Harper, an influential lockdown-sceptic, urged the PM to declare an end to coronavirus restrictions.
A total of 25 out of 137 NHS Trusts in England have declared critical incidents — or 17.5 per cent. Above are the trusts that have publicly announced they have declared these incidents to help them manage winter pressures
Mr Harper warned Mr Johnson he could suffer an even greater rebellion than when he introduced his Plan B measures if he tries to extend them later this month.
Mr Johnson is unlikely to set out further plans while cases rates remain so high and the NHS remains under significant pressure.
Downing Street said it is ‘too early to say’ when the transition to ‘endemic’ will be complete.
But the PM’s spokesman said: ‘Exactly what point we’re on, that is probably still too early to say.
‘We are seeing early signs of cases falling in England and indeed even hospital admissions are starting to fall, but it’s still too early to draw conclusions.’
The spokesman stressed that hundreds of millions of LFDs were being sent out this month.
‘There’s no doubt that the use of lateral flow devices are both interrupting chains of transmission and saving lives,’ he said.
‘We’ve got 425 million tests coming on in January, as we set out.’
He said the Government’s Covid autumn and winter plan had set out that ‘at a later stage, as the Government’s response to the virus changes, universal free provision of these tests will end and I think that’s what the public would expect’.
But he said it was ‘too early to say specifically when we will have moved from the point where we’ve got extremely high prevalence currently, and when it will be right to consider a different approach’.
He added: ‘It’s right that we adapt along with the virus.’
Mr Gove said this morning: ‘We are moving to a situation – we’re not there yet – but we are moving to a situation where it is possible to say that we can live with Covid and that the pressure on the NHS and on vital public services is abating.
‘But it’s absolutely vital to recognise that we are not there yet and as the Health Secretary has reminded us, there will be some difficult weeks ahead and that is why we all need to continue to test, continue – if we are positive – to isolate and continue broadly to support the NHS as it goes through a challenging period.
‘But one in which the frontline professionals are doing an amazing job.’
Mr Gove told Sky News it would be for Mr Johnson and Health Secretary Sajid Javid to decide whether to cut the period of Covid isolation to five days from seven.
But he said: ‘We always keep things under review because we’re always guided by the facts, by the science, and by changing circumstances.
‘So I think it’s striking to note that in the United Kingdom overall, particularly in England, we have one of the most open regimes, one of the essentially… one of the most liberal approaches of any country in Europe, but we also need to balance that with a determination to ensure that we are not overwhelming the NHS.’
Mr Gove said the NHS was likely to face pressure for the next two-three weeks, and potentially longer.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Our first responsibility at the moment must be to support the NHS, but you quite rightly legitimately ask if we get through – and at the moment I hope and pray that we will get through this difficult period – then there will be better times ahead.
‘And I think one of the things that we do need to think about is how we live with Covid, how we live with this particular type of coronavirus. There are other coronaviruses which are endemic and with which we live, viruses tend to develop in a way whereby they become less harmful but more widespread.
‘So, guided by the science, we can look to the progressive lifting of restrictions, and I think for all of us the sooner the better. But we’ve got to keep the NHS safe.’
Mr Gove admitted that he personally had been at the ‘more cautious end’ in the discussions over restrictions, before Christmas but the PM’s judgement had been ‘vindicated’.
‘We always keep that under review but his judgment has been vindicated,’ he said.
The Cabinet minister said it was ‘impossible to predict’ how long lateral flow tests will remain free.
But he said: ‘But it is the case that in this country lateral flow tests are free, unlike in many other jurisdictions, they’re a vital tool in making sure that we can curb the spread of the infection and also that people who are needed to isolate do so.’
Prof Graham Medley, who heads the SPI-M modelling subgroup of SAGE, said the country is transitioning away from ’emergency’ – but warned it will be a process rather than a moment.
‘I think that that transition is absolutely true. It can’t be an emergency forever,’ he told the BBC.
‘So at some point it will have to stop being an emergency but that is likely to be a phase out rather than an active point in time where somebody can declare the epidemic over. It’s going to fade out and disappear much more slowly than that, I think.’
Clive Watson, chairman of the City Pub Group, questioned the continuing work-from-home guidance and said the review of measures due by January 26 is a ‘very good opportunity’ to change them.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme things had been ‘really, really tough for the hospitality industry’.
Ahead of the next review of measures which are currently in place in England under Plan B, he said: ‘I think that’s a very good opportunity to modify those. I mean, for instance, why do people who work in hospitals or work in retail go to work, but office workers are exempted from going to work?
‘So I think we need to look at that very closely and start to withdraw those restrictions.’
Mr Harper, the chair of the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group, warned the rebellion if the Prime Minister tries to extend Plan B beyond January 26 could be even larger than the 100 Conservatives who defied him over their introduction last month.
‘I think there will be even more people against it,’ he said in an interview with the Financial Times. ‘I think the intellectual argument now is even weaker.’
King’s College London scientists today suggested that cases in the capital also appeared to be peaking. They said they had dropped by a third within a week, raising hopes that the worst of the outbreak may be over. The figures rely on weekly reports from three quarters of a million people nationally to estimate the prevalence of the virus
Asked when Mr Johnson should formally declare an end to the restrictions, the MP said: ‘If that’s not now, when is it?’
Mr Zahawi insisted yesterday that lateral flow tests will remain free for the time being after the Sunday Times reported their provision could be massively reduced.
He said the UK Health Security Agency will investigate whether the isolation period can be reduced to five days, telling Sky’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday: ‘It would certainly help mitigate some of the pressures on schools, on critical workforce and others.
‘But I would absolutely be driven by advice from the experts, the scientists, on whether we should move to five days from seven days. What you don’t want is to create the wrong outcome by higher levels of infection.’
Dr Clive Dix, former chairman of Britain’s vaccine taskforce, said mass testing and vaccination should end for all but the most vulnerable after the booster campaign is over.
‘It’s pointless trying to stop infection with it, which is sort of what mass vaccination is all about, because it’s not doing it. We’re seeing a lot of infection,’ he told Channel 4 News.
Dr Dix added: ‘I think that’s a little bit controversial but let’s look at a couple of months’ time, we shouldn’t be mass testing. I think mass testing doesn’t help anybody.
‘I think we need to get to the point where if we have a young person who gets Covid, having been vaccinated, we know they’ve got levels of protection, but just like if they’ve got very bad cold or flu, they stay at home… and when they get better they go back to work.’
NHS strikes deal with private sector to safeguard against Omicron: Independent hospitals on standby for three months to treat cancer patients if health service can’t
More NHS cancer patients will be treated in private hospitals under a deal struck with the sector to ‘safeguard’ against the staff absence crisis and rising Covid admissions.
The deal allows NHS trusts in England to send a wide range of patients, including those who need some forms of cancer surgery, to nearby private wards if they cannot provide the care.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who signed off on the three-month deal, said it would ‘ensure people can continue to get the care they need’ as the health service wrestles with a winter crisis.
Neither the cost of the agreement, nor the number of beds hired, has been disclosed, but the Government paid £400million a month for 8,000 private beds during the first wave of the pandemic. The extra capacity comes as NHS hospitals were told to identify areas such as gyms and community centres that can be used to create ‘super-surge’ wards in case they are overwhelmed.
But NHS bosses are confident that they will cope with the current Omicron-fuelled pressures, with one top official today insisting the ‘front line will hold’ even with the health service on ‘war footing’.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid (left) said the deal would provide ‘safeguarding’ to the NHS. But Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers which represents hospital trusts, said they could get through the Omicron crisis without further restrictions
Official data shows hospitalisations are slowing across the country — with 2,000 being admitted on average each day in England, half of last January’s peak — and are already falling in London, which was first region to be hit by Omicron.
The number of patients on ventilators has also stayed flat, and overall occupancy levels are no higher than in the winters before the pandemic struck. But cabinet minister Michael Gove today accepted the NHS would be under pressure for the ‘next two or three weeks’.
NHS waiting lists have surged to a record high of 6million after whole wards were turned over to fighting the virus, with some patients now waiting more than two years for care. MPs warned last week that the list could double in three years without urgent action to get more doctors and nurses on wards.