The Government’s scientific advisory group today warned there could be more than 6,000 daily Covid hospital admissions by this time next month, as it called for ministers to be prepared to roll back ‘light’ lockdown curbs.
Modelling by SAGE — now infamous for repeatedly overegging the UK’s epidemic — found that hospital numbers could eclipse the peak of previous waves if the R rate were to rise to 1.5 in the coming weeks.
While the group admitted the jabs have tamed the virus, it claimed there was ‘potential for another large wave of hospitalisations’ due to waning immunity, schools returning from summer and workers going back to offices.
SAGE’s most optimistic scenario still forecasts about 2,000 daily hospital admissions — double the amount occurring now — which it warned could lead to a ‘difficult few months’ for the NHS.
The panel has recommended a ‘relatively light’ set of restrictions are brought back at the first sign of an uptick in hospital numbers, including masks, working from home and a return to isolating all close contacts of Covid cases.
It said that going hard and early with light restrictions this autumn could avoid the need for more drastic measures later on in winter. The advice was revealed in a batch of scientific papers made public today but submitted to Government last week.
SAGE’s models did not factor in the effect of vaccinating healthy 12 to 15-year-olds or giving booster doses to 30 million vulnerable Britons, two policies that were only announced in the last two days.
But the guidance will have been factored into Boris Johnson’s winter Covid plan, which gives ministers the power to reinstate a catalogue of social restrictions — even a ‘last resort’ lockdown.
Latest figures showed another 1,009 people were admitted to hospitals across the UK with Covid on September 9, a levelling off from the 988 admissions recorded the same time the previous week.
The country is now recording 1,000 hospitlisations per day, up from around 750 from ‘Freedom Day’ on July 19, when all legal curbs were lifted in England.
In an absolute worst-case scenario, which would see the reprotection ‘R’ rate soar to 2, there could be even more than 8,000 daily hospital admissions by the middle of October (RED). That would be double the number at the worst of the second wave in January, before jabs were widely available. But SAGE admitted this was ‘very unlikely’ to happen because of how well the vaccines are suppressing the virus. A more likely scenario could see the R — the average number of people each Covid patients infects — rise to 1.5, which could trigger between 5,000 and 7,000 daily hospitalisations at a peak next month (BLUE). The most optimistic forecast has the R rate hovering at 1.1 through the autumn, with daily hospital admissions sitting at roughly 2,000 (GREEN). Currently the UK R rate is estimated to be between 0.9 and 1.0, but the estimate lags several weeks behind due to the way it is calculated
From left to right, Chief Medical Officer for England Chris Whitty, Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance and Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaving 10 Downing Street, London, today after revealing the winter Covid plan
The hospital admission forecasts were done by SAGE’s modelling sub-committee SPI-M, who submitted their projections to ministers on September 8.
In an absolute worst-case scenario, which would see the reprotection ‘R’ rate soar to 2, there could be even more than 8,000 daily hospital admissions by the middle of October.
That would be double the number at the worst of the second wave in January, before jabs were widely available. But SAGE admitted this was ‘very unlikely’ to happen because of how well the vaccines are suppressing the virus.
A more likely scenario could see the R — the average number of people each Covid patients infects — rise to 1.5, which could trigger between 5,000 and 7,000 daily hospitalisations at a peak next month.
The most optimistic forecast has the R rate hovering at 1.1 through the autumn, with daily hospital admissions sitting at roughly 2,000. Currently the UK R rate is estimated to be between 0.9 and 1.0, but the estimate lags several weeks behind due to the way it is calculated.
SPI-M said it was concerned about high infection numbers, with about 33,000 people testing positive every day, as well as the impact of schools returning and more office workers going back.
The group said it will take a further three to four weeks for the full impacts of these behavioual changes.
In the advice published today, it said: ‘While the relationship between cases and hospitalisations has changed due to vaccination, increasing cases remain the earliest warning sign that hospital admissions are likely to rise.’
The group admitted there were high uncertainties about how the epidemic will transpire now but called for light restrictions to be imposed quickly to avoid more damaging measures being needed later.
‘If enacted early enough, a relatively light set of measures could be sufficient to curb sustained growth. During a period of sustained epidemic growth, however, the more stringent the measures introduced, the shorter the duration needed for the measures to be in place to reduce to a given prevalence.
‘It also remains the case that the earlier that interventions are brought in to curb growth, the lower prevalence is kept, reducing the direct COVID-19 burden and reducing the risk of needing more stringent measures to quickly reduce transmission.’
The advisers also raised concerns about workers returning to offices too quickly. ‘There is a clear consensus that continued high levels of homeworking has played a very important role in preventing sustained epidemic growth in recent months.
‘It is highly likely that a significant decrease in homeworking in the next few months would result in a rapid increase in hospital admissions.’
SAGE models have previously been ridiculed for exaggerating the UK’s epidemic, most recently estimating there would be 100,000 Covid cases per day over the summer.
In a separate document published today from a SAGE meeting on September 9, the group acknowledged that the epidemic was now ‘entering a period of uncertainty’.
It added: ‘Key uncertainties include the potential impact of any waning of immunity and any significant changes in contact patterns associated with increased attendance at workplaces and reopening of education settings.
‘It will take several weeks to be able to understand the full impact of any such changes.’
It was also stressed at that meeting that ‘early’ interventions may reduce need for more ‘disruptive measures’ and avoid an ‘unacceptable’ level of hospital admissions.
Sir Patrick Vallance echoed the concerns at a Downing Street press briefing on Tuesday, where the Prime Minister said compulsory masks and Covid passports are being ‘kept in reserve’ if booster jabs and vaccines for schoolchildren fails to keep the disease under control.
Fronting a press conference alongside chief medical officer Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick, the PM insisted that the UK was ‘incomparably’ better placed to deal with the disease this year.
He said he hoped the situation could be kept stable with more jabs and the public behaving sensibly – although ministers have made clear another lockdown cannot be completely ruled out as a ‘last resort’.
But Professor Whitty gave a more downbeat assessment, invoking the famous mantra from hit TV show Game of Thrones by warning that ‘winter is coming’.
He said that infections were ‘high’ relative to last year, and the NHS was under ‘extreme pressure’ even though vaccines were helping significantly.
The premier was addressing the nation just hours after it emerged his mother had died, and thanked people for their condolences.
But his winter plan has alarmed businesses and enraged Tory MPs, who heckled Sajid Javid in the Commons as he said it includes the ‘Plan B’ of making masks compulsory ‘in certain settings’, more working from home and social distancing if the NHS is under threat.
Vaccine passports will stay on the table and could be introduced in England with a week’s notice, even though they will not go ahead from next month as originally intended.
There was a boost for Mr Johnson this evening as cases fell 30 per cent week on week to 26,628 and deaths dropped 12 per cent to to 185.