Omicron infections may have plateaued in London, Neil Ferguson says | Omicron variant

Prof Neil Ferguson, the scientist who helped shape Britain’s coronavirus lockdown strategy, said he was “cautiously optimistic” that Omicron infections had plateaued in London and could reduce in the next week.

Ferguson, a mathematical epidemiologist from Imperial College London, cautioned that record cases numbers being reported were likely to be an underestimate because test supplies have run out in some areas.

But speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “An epidemic reaching such high numbers can’t sustain those numbers forever. So we would expect to see case numbers start to come down in the next week, maybe already coming down in London, but in other regions a week to three weeks.”

He added: “I’m cautiously optimistic that infection rates in London in that key 18 to 50 age group, which has been driving the Omicron epidemic, may possibly have plateaued. It is too early to say whether they’re going down yet.”

Ferguson also said that despite a recent doubling in Covid hospital admissions the vaccinations were proving effective at preventing severe disease.

He said: “Vaccination is holding up in terms of protection against severe disease, assisted by the fact that Omicron almost certainly is substantially less severe, but it still puts pressures on the health system.”

Ferguson said: “Omicron is substantially less severe. And that has helped us undoubtedly. We would be seeing much higher case numbers in hospital otherwise. And vaccines are holding up against severe disease and against severe outcomes well, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be difficult few weeks for the NHS.”

Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said the NHS did not want staff going back into hospitals with Covid and risk passing it on.

He told Times Radio that reducing the self-isolation period to five days should be done only if the science “said it was absolutely safe”.

On the general outlook, he said: “We should feel some hope and confidence about the medium term, [and] that we will gradually become more able to live with Covid as the prime minister has said, that when Omicron has gone through us that we make it to that stage and the NHS will recover.”

But Taylor added: “On the other hand, we’ve got to recognise that in the next few weeks at least things are very, very difficult. One thing that people in our service find difficult is that it does seem as though there’s a kind of almost politicised attempt to suggest that things aren’t as difficult as they are, that any suggestion that we should sustain the restrictions or whether it’s personal responsibility or policy.

“If you’re working in health service, you see the reality, and what you want politicians, what you want people, to be driven by is the data and what’s happening at the frontline, and let’s not be in the business of … getting away from the reality of this.”

Covid infections in England’s regions

He said the judgment on restrictions “needs to be driven by the data and what’s in the best interests of the country”, adding: “It shouldn’t be driven by a kind of political virility symbolism, where the sooner we can be free, the better it is, regardless of the effects. Let’s carry on being driven by the data.”

The minister for vaccines and public health, Maggie Throup, said she was “not sure” how many Britons were currently in self-isolation.

She told Sky News: “I’m not sure of that [actual] figure, but I think what’s shown over Christmas is that a lot of people have caught the disease, the Omicron variant is very transmissible, but what is good news, it doesn’t seem to be resulting in severe diseases as some of the other variants did.”

She added: “Well, not everybody declares that they’re self-isolating, I think that’s one important thing, that it’s something that they do because they’ve tested positive or they’ve been in contact with somebody whose tested positive, they don’t have to report that in.

“The vaccine is working and that’s the best way to stop the transmission, and to stop hospitalisations and for our life to get back to normal.”

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