The Omicron wave of coronavirus sweeping the UK will “peak quite fast”, England’s chief medical officer said as he suggested there are some “really key bits of information” missing that would inform the need for a lockdown.
Professor Chris Whitty told the Commons Health and Social Care Committee he believes the doubling rate for Omicron will slow down, as it is clear people are already taking precautions.
At a certain point, people will have immunity either from boosters or Omicron infection, which will also slow down the doubling time, he said.
“I think what we will see with this, and I think we are seeing it in South Africa, is that the upswing will be incredibly fast even if people are taking more cautious actions – as they are – that will help slow it down, but it is still going to be very fast,” he said.
“It will probably peak really quite fast and my anticipation is it may come down faster than previous peaks, but I wouldn’t want to say that for sure.
“In terms of where we are going over the next few weeks, the rate of increase is going to be quite impressive.”
Later, adopting an upbeat tone, he said he is optimistic about the future and suggested the country will not be in this cycle for years to come.
Asked whether he has advised the Government to do more to protect against the spread, he said the only formal advice comes from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).
But he added: “What the Government has said, and I think what we have all said, is to make really tough economic and social decisions there are some really key bits of information we do not yet have, and there’s a very wide range of possibilities as to where this could go, some of which are very difficult for the NHS indeed, and some of which are much less so, and we’re getting new information all the time. This is being reviewed by the Government all the time.”
He said Plan B and “really critically the booster programme” are intended to slow things down, “but obviously if the facts change and it becomes clearer that things are heading the wrong way, ministers are always going to take constant reviews of this”.
He said if vaccines are less effective than expected, that would be a “material change to how ministers viewed the risks going forward”.
However, Prof Whitty warned that even if boosters do hold back Omicron to a large extent, a lot of people across the whole economy will still “simultaneously fall ill”.
Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser for the UK Health Security Agency, told the committee around 250 people need to be in hospital with confirmed Omicron for a full study to be done on severity.
At the moment there are 15 people in hospital as a confirmed case, though the true number will be higher.
Dr Hopkins said the “earliest we will have reliable data is the week between Christmas and new year and early January”.
Going forward, Prof Whitty said it is likely that vaccines and antiviral drugs will do “almost all of the heavy lifting” when it comes to tackling future Covid-19 variants.
He said: “If I project forward, I would anticipate in a number of years – possibly 18 months, possibly slightly less, possibly slightly more – that we will have polyvalent vaccines, which will cover a much wider range, and we will probably have several antivirals.
“We’ve already got two reasonable ones, and a variety of other counter-measures that mean that the great majority – and probably almost all of the heavy lifting when we get a new variant, unless it’s extremely different – can be met by medical means.
“I don’t see this as a kind of ‘we are going to have to do this repeatedly every few months’ situation.
“I think what will happen is the risks will gradually decrease over time. It’s incremental, it’s not a sudden thing.
“But I think each six months will be better than the last six months.
“How fast that will be… it’s always dangerous to predict science.”
Asked about cancer care suffering while the NHS focuses on Covid, Prof Whitty said: “I think this is sometimes said by people who have no understanding of health at all. But I don’t think it’s said by anyone who’s serious, if I’m honest.
“When they say it, it’s usually because they want to make a political point.
“The reality is, and if you ask any doctor working in any part of the system, they will say this, that what is threatening our ability to do cancer, what is threatening our ability to do all these things, is the fact that so much of the NHS effort, so many of the beds are having to be put over to Covid and that we’re having to work in a less efficient way because Covid is there.
“Finding a way to manage Covid in a way that minimises the impact on everything else is absolutely central to what we’re trying to do.
“In a sense, I completely agree there are multiple other things in addition to Covid. If we don’t crack Covid at the points when (we’ve) got big waves, as we have now, we do huge damage elsewhere.
“The idea that the lockdowns caused the problems with things like cancer is a complete inversion of reality.
“If we had not had the lockdowns, the whole system would have been in deep, deep trouble and the impact on things like heart attacks and strokes, and all the other things people must still come forward for when they have them, would have been even worse than it was.”