As another year living through a pandemic draws to a close, the conclusion that most people are beyond bored with Covid is an accurate assessment.
The days have blurred into weeks, the weeks into months, and it’s impossible to recall everything that has happened over the last 20-odd months.
However, it would take a very short memory to forget the fallout last January as the health service imploded under the pressure of Covid-19.
With doctors treating patients in the back of ambulances and an unknown number of cancer patients coming to serious harm as their treatments were cancelled, the toll on healthcare staff, patients and the economy cannot be overstated.
So, is Northern Ireland headed for disaster once again? Unlike last year, it is slightly more difficult to predict how the coming months will play out. The arrival of Omicron has brought so many uncertainties, although it is becoming painfully obvious that it is a significantly more infectious variant than Delta.
Yesterday saw 4,701 Covid cases confirmed in Northern Ireland, with the seven-day case rate up from 18,954 to 31,643. On December 30 last year, 2,143 Covid-19 cases were reported, with 10,625 cases diagnosed over the previous week.
The difference is stark — even more so when you consider the current number of infections is estimated to be significantly higher than official figures suggest. But what of the health service? This time last year, there were 457 Covid occupied beds, of which 35 were in a critical care unit. Fast forward to yesterday and there were 235 Covid occupied beds across the system, with 32 Covid ICU patients. At first glance, these figures are encouraging but the primary concern is the fact that we still don’t know how Omicron is going to translate into hospitalisations and deaths.
We have the vaccines now, which put us at a distinct advantage compared to last year, but Omicron infections are only now really beginning to move into the older population.
Yesterday, there were 97 care home outbreaks across Northern Ireland — a significant jump from the 43 just a week before, and while the vaccines were holding the line in the care home sector when Delta was the dominant variant, we don’t know whether this will be the case with Omicron.
With the time lag between infection and the onset of serious illness, it is likely to be some weeks before the full impact on our most vulnerable is realised.
Even if the maths doesn’t add up, and the significantly higher rates of Covid-19 don’t result in a surge in hospital cases, the presence of Omicron in the community presents a significant challenge for the health service.
The more healthcare workers who are infected or identified as a close contact, the less vital staff are available to work on the frontline.
An increase in Covid cases in the community will also lead to more incidental cases in hospital and even if patients aren’t taking up a bed because they’re sick with Covid, the very fact they are infected is an additional burden for the NHS.
As the service hangs on by a thread, this alone could take it to breaking point.