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COVID-19: New cases may be running at 250,000 a day, and pressure on NHS ‘won’t start easing until March’ | UK News

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COVID-19: New cases may be running at 250,000 a day, and pressure on NHS 'won't start easing until March' | UK News

Pressure on the NHS will not start to reduce until March, ministers have been warned – amid fears that new infections could be running at more than 250,000 a day.

Downing Street has been told by government scientists that the rollout of the vaccines is unlikely to cause the mortality rate to decline until later in February.

The vaccines are unlikely to have an impact in January because of the three-week lag time it takes before it has an effect.

Boris Johnson is under pressure from backbench MPs to announce he is lifting restrictions on 8 March.

Mark Harper, chair of the COVID Recovery Group of Tory MPs, said that after this date – three weeks after the deadline set to vaccinate the four most vulnerable groups – “what possible reason could there be for keeping severe restrictions in place a second longer”.

But if the NHS is still running at or above capacity, Mr Johnson might be reluctant to follow their demand to remove severe restrictions at this point.

Some of Mr Johnson’s backbenchers want those aged under 60 who will still be susceptible to the virus but not at that point vaccinated to be given the choice whether to return to a greater degree of normality.

However, Downing Street will have to weigh up whether this is worth the risk given a proportion of them will still end up hospitalised.

Scientists warn it could be March before there is any reduction in the pressure on the NHS, which is set to come under its greatest strain for a generation over the coming weeks.

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Patel promises crackdown on lockdown breakers

At a news conference on Monday, Professor Stephen Powis, NHS England’s medical director, said that hospital admissions will continue to rise into February.

But Sky News understands that government scientists are warning that many of these will be from high-risk groups that have not yet had the vaccine.

They are statistically likely to go on to recover but only after a lengthy stay in hospital. This means that the pressure on NHS critical capacity will continue into March.

Boris Johnson Pic: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor
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The PM is under pressure from his backbenchers to announce he is lifting restrictions on 8 March. Pic: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

It comes as ministers were warned there could be more than 250,000 infections a day at points this month.

The Office for National Statistics estimate there were about 1.1 million new infections in the week to 2 January.

But at most, government scientists say, this could amount to more than 250,000 new cases a day.

Government sources have told Sky News they do not have data yet to see whether the latest lockdown in England, announced by the prime minister last Monday, is working.

COVID vaccine tracker

Initial data on whether the England lockdown has worked will only be available from next week at the earliest.

Ministers believe they needed two weeks from the day it was introduced at an absolute minimum to see the impact of this lockdown, given it differs from the first restrictions last March.

The biggest unknown remains whether those who have been vaccinated can no longer transmit coronavirus.

The Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccines both stop people catching the disease and getting sick, but there is no evidence yet whether it will stop the spread.

Although all the medics and scientists hope this will be the case, it is still the subject of a big government study.

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COVID-19: Scientists cast doubt over claim UK variant is more deadly | UK News

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COVID-19: Scientists cast doubt over claim UK variant is more deadly | UK News

Scientists have cast doubt over claims the COVID-19 variant first identified in the UK is more deadly than the original virus.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the British public on Friday there was “some evidence that the new variant may be associated with a higher degree of mortality”.

Early evidence suggested the variant could be about 30% more deadly, the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said, alongside Mr Johnson.

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UK COVID variant ‘more deadly’ strain

It followed a report by the government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG), which concluded there is “a realistic possibility” that the new variant “is associated with an increased risk of death”.

But the report warned there were “limitations” in the data “that it may not be possible to resolve”.

Dr Mike Tildesley, who advises the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), said it was “possibly a little bit presumptuous” of the prime minister to present the findings “in the very early stages”.

As more data is collected over the next two weeks, it is possible that the variant may prove to be less deadly than the original virus, he added.

Dr Tildesley told Sky News: “It’s somewhat unclear that this 30% is really reflective of what we are seeing.

“I would certainly approach this is with an element of caution at the moment.”

He added: “[The data] could continue to reflect what we are seeing already, that it’s more transmissible and more deadly, but it’s possible as we get more data that it could go the other way.”

Dr Tildesley suggested the government may have decided to present the early data to encourage people to follow the COVID restrictions.

The UK recorded another 1,348 coronavirus deaths on Saturday, taking the total to more than 97,000.

“We are seeing our hospitals still under severe pressure,” Dr Tildesley added.

“We are seeing sadly record number of deaths in the last week per day which is really worrying.

“Maybe it serves as a reminder to all of us that we need to keep adhering to the rules.

“Even if the data are a little bit uncertain right now, that might be one good reason to report on this a little bit earlier – as a reminder to people that we still need to batten down the hatches and do what we have been doing.”

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Campaign launched amid ‘very precarious’ situation

At a Downing Street news conference on Friday, Sir Patrick said with the initial variant, 10 out of 1,000 people over the age of 60 who were infected would be expected to die.

With the UK variant, the available data suggests that 13 or 14 people out of 1,000 from the same age group would die, he added.

Professor Calum Semple, a member of SAGE and NERVTAG, said it was a “small but important change”.

“The headline figure of 30% is dramatic but it’s not particularly helpful because the actual risk of death for any individual is actually quite small,” he told Sky News.

“If you are a person in your 80s and you’ve got multiple underlying problems, then yes the risk is much higher.

“If you’re a 20-year-old, the risk is infinitesimally small to start with so you won’t notice an increase in risk.”

Professor Calum Semple says that Christmas mixing and the new variant are pushing up the numbers of COVID cases and deaths
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Professor Calum Semple said suggestions the variant is 30% more deadly ‘is not particularly helpful’

Prof Semple defended the government’s decision to present the mortality data, saying ministers would have been accused of a cover-up had they not revealed the findings to the public.

“I think it’s really good that science and policy are on the same page in being transparent, sharing data early, and making people aware of the situation,” he said.

“And perhaps if that’s been used to reinforce the importance of getting vaccinated and importance of self-isolating if you feel unwell, and not breaching regulations, then that’s a good use of the data.

“From my position, the data is early. We cannot be completely confident in it. In fact, we’ve said in the reports that we have low confidence in it.

“But we would be criticised far more if we didn’t share this information and three weeks later we say; ‘Oh by the way, this is happening and we knew about it three weeks ago but didn’t tell you’.”

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Vallance: ‘Virus is with us forever’

The co-author of the NERVTAG report, Professor Graham Medle, said it clear the new variant is more transmissible than the original.

However, he acknowledged that it remains an “open question” whether it is more likely to lead to death.

“The question about whether it is more dangerous in terms of mortality, I think, is still open. There is evidence it is more dangerous but this is a very dangerous virus,” he told Radio 4’s Today programme.

“In terms of making the situation worse, it is not a game-changer. It is a very bad thing that is slightly worse.”

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COVID-19: Lebanon’s health service close to collapse with case numbers beyond ‘wildest predictions’ | World News

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The director of Lebanon's largest coronavirus hospital Dr Firas Abiad said the government decision to relax restrictions over Christmas and New Year has led to a huge increase in cases and healthcare is on the verge of collapse

The head of Lebanon’s main coronavirus hospital has said the country’s health system is close to collapse – with not enough beds, drugs, oxygen, ventilators or staff.

In a stark interview with Sky News, Dr Firas Abiad said the government decision to relax coronavirus restrictions over a few fateful days at Christmas and New Year has led to a huge increase in cases and deaths over the past few weeks.

He allowed our cameras into the casualty department and the intensive care unit of the Rafic Hariri University Hospital in Beirut to see the pressure he and his staff are under.

Dr Abiad said all hospitals were reporting full, or almost full, intensive care units – and many have patients stuck in emergency wards, waiting for a bed.

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Dr Abiad said the government has thrown the healthcare system ‘into an abyss’

“Some patients are not able to find a bed and there’s been several cases where patients have died in their homes,” he said.

“If you look at the sharp rise in cases you see that Lebanon is really seeing unprecedented COVID numbers which is even beyond our wildest predictions.

“The number of daily new cases has almost quadrupled since where we were almost a month ago,” said Dr Abiad.

“At the same time we’ve seen that the number of deaths has also tripled and the number of patients in ICU has gone up by almost 100%.”

On 17 December, four days before a nationwide lockdown was due to end, the government decided to ease a series of restrictions for the holiday period.

Under intense pressure from businesses, they allowed nightclubs, bars and restaurants to open at 50% capacity while urging people to wear masks and maintain social distancing.

But videos on social media over Christmas and New Year showed packed clubs and bars. No attempts were made to crackdown on the violations.

“It’s clear that those were catastrophic [decisions] and what has happened is they’ve thrown the whole healthcare system of the country into a major abyss,” said Dr Abiad.

In the casualty department, the pressures are obvious. There is a shortage of beds, drugs, oxygen, ventilators and staff.

It is a relatively modern hospital but it looks sparse, except for the number of patients.

A nurse strokes a patient’s head.

“I am passing out… I am passing out,” he tells the nurse.

“No, no! You’re doing very well. Don’t be scared. Your oxygen is good. 99%. Honestly it’s very good,” she reassures him.

In the next bed is 53-year-old Aida Derawi. She first began to feel unwell 15 days ago. Her family had hoped she would recover at home, but this week things got worse.

“Yesterday I felt I couldn’t take it anymore,” she says. “My back and lungs were aching. My kids took me around to find a hospital but not a single one would accept me.”

Eventually space was found and she is improving slowly.

Nurse Hussein al Khazn tells us that in this wave of the virus, the patients are no longer predominately elderly.

The director of Lebanon's largest coronavirus hospital Dr Firas Abiad said the government decision to relax restrictions over a few fateful days at Christmas and New Year has led to a huge increase in cases and healthcare is on the verge of collapse. Pic: Red Cross volunteer Waad Abdulaad
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Red Cross volunteer Waad Abdulaad is very much on Lebanon’s frontline

“Much younger now,” he says. “Before we had 50, 60-year-old patients.

“Now it’s 20, 25, 30-year-old patients and they’re very, very critical – all of them.”

On the other side of the city, we’re given access to the Lebanese Red Cross coordination centre.

In a well-organised control room, a team of volunteers is juggling telephone calls from patients’ families with radio calls to the ambulance teams on the ground.

“So, she’s ill with coronavirus?” a volunteer asks down the line. “So she’s got shortness of breath?”

A radio message is sent to one of the dispatch teams.

“We’re dispatched to a patient that tested positive for COVID and she’s currently suffering from desaturation and vomiting,” volunteer medic Waad Abdulaal says from the passenger seat of the ambulance.

“So we’re going to go ahead, assess her and see if there’s a need to take her to the hospital.”

Lebanon was already in a critical state economically.

Years of accumulative economic mismanagement has led to a slow collapse in every sector of society.

That was then exacerbated by the pandemic and the devastating port explosion last year.

The director of Lebanon's largest coronavirus hospital Dr Firas Abiad said the government decision to relax restrictions over Christmas and New Year has led to a huge increase in cases and healthcare is on the verge of collapse
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Ambulance crews carry an 80-year-old woman down a flight of stairs in darkness due to another power cut

Up several flights of a stairwell, in darkness because of yet another power cut, the Red Cross team reaches its patient.

Madame Imad is 80 years old. She tested positive last week and her diabetes is complicating her condition. She needs to go to hospital, but there is an issue finding a bed for her.

The positivity rate across the country this past week has been at 21% (the 14-day rolling average).

That means the community spread of the virus is out of control. It needs to be at 5% before there is any chance of regaining a grip of the crisis.

Calls are made and they think space has been found at a hospital nearby.

Madame Imad is carried down the stairs as her daughter Sophie looks straight into our camera and pleads: “Show them that there are people dying before they reach the hospital.”

The elderly woman did make it to the hospital. But she was sent home again. There were no beds. Her family has told us her condition this weekend has worsened.

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COVID-19: UK records another 1,348 coronavirus-related deaths and 33,552 cases | UK News

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COVID-19: UK records another 1,348 coronavirus-related deaths and 33,552 cases | UK News

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