PROFESSOR CARL HENEGHAN: I’m a GP on the frontline, and I don’t think we’re overwhelmed with Covid
Already struggling with the normal tide of winter sickness in our hospital wards, we now find ourselves hit with yet more frightening projections of serious illness and death.
And alongside these huge but mostly unreliable numbers comes the threat of further restrictions and controls.
Today there are fresh demands for lockdowns from those who believe that suppressing Covid-19 trumps all other human endeavours. Yet attempts to shut down society make no sense – particularly as they are at odds with real experience on the ground.
A true description of where we find ourselves is more nuanced and – overwhelmingly – more optimistic than the forecasts suggest.
CARL HENEGHAN: Already struggling with the normal tide of winter sickness in our hospital wards, we now find ourselves hit with yet more frightening projections of serious illness and death
First, our situation is wholly different from the one in which we found ourselves in this time last year, when we were plunged into an emergency lockdown. Not only do we have the vaccines and the huge protection they offer, we have a growing number of antiviral drugs, some offering up to 90 per cent efficacy for infected patients.
There has also been a substantial reduction in serious illness. If we go back to this time last year, there were more than 19,000 patients in hospital with 2,000 daily admissions. These figures have more than halved, with a total of 7,600 patients and 900 daily admissions.
We should take confidence from the fact that, despite their detail and clarity, worrying mathematical models have consistently over- predicted the reality.
For example, the modelling used to justify Health Secretary Sajid Javid’s claim that we are already seeing 200,000 new Omicron infections a day has now been abandoned by health officials.
Further modelling was criticised for failing to consider evidence from South Africa that is showing Omicron is causing fewer deaths and hospitalisations even among the oldest and most vulnerable than previous versions of the virus.
A great deal of the apparent rise in Covid cases is actually tied to a major increase in the amount of testing. On December 7, Britain conducted roughly one million tests. By December 15, this had risen to 1.63 million – a rise of nearly two-thirds in eight days.
Meanwhile, the true infection rate as judged by the PCR testing system has remained largely constant.
It is also reassuring that the vaccines may well be holding up (although it is true that protection will wane over time).
CARL HENEGHAN: I am a GP as well as an epidemiologist and I spent yesterday morning visiting urgent cases among the elderly. Yes it was busy, but busy with many of the normal respiratory problems we face at this time of year
I am a GP as well as an epidemiologist and I spent yesterday morning visiting urgent cases among the elderly. Yes it was busy, but busy with many of the normal respiratory problems we face at this time of year.
It didn’t feel as though we are overwhelmed with Covid. Coronaviruses are seasonal in the Northern Hemisphere, as are several other respiratory pathogens, so it shouldn’t be surprising if hospital admissions are high.
It would undoubtedly help politicians and their advisers to see the reality of the NHS front line, instead of listening to focus groups and staring at graphs. In the real world, it’s clear people have changed their behaviour in response to the change in case numbers and the guidance they have received. Analysis of people’s movements shows retail activity is down by 25 per cent in Greater London. Use of public transport and attendance at the workplace is down by 40 per cent.
This is one reason why inflated projections become so rapidly outdated – without continual adjustment, they are misleading.
At some point there will be a recognition that people can be trusted to understand and manage their own risks. However, we must be mindful of the threat to the most vulnerable and of the pressure facing the health service.
From now on we must be flexible in our approach to the winter surge in respiratory viruses. If we are going to spend time with elderly vulnerable people, then, yes, get tested, talk to them about the risks and discuss with them the choice about what they want to do.
But if we are to be trusted to run our own lives, we need accurate data – and that is in short supply.
We’re still unable to say with confidence who is unwell in hospital or for what reason. How many elderly patients are there not because they are sick but because there is a shortage of beds in the care sector? How many are in the daily Covid numbers?
CARL HENEGHAN: The virus will continue to evolve and what matters now is our ability to cope with the risk and to leave lockdowns behind
Holding the Government to account to produce accurate information is a priority.
The virus will continue to evolve and what matters now is our ability to cope with the risk and to leave lockdowns behind.
We have learned from the experience of Wales and Scotland, which have used more restrictive measures, that those measures have not prevented sickness, hospitalisation or death. They have not prevented the inevitable winter rise.
Everywhere we look, there is uncertainty. And we must learn to live with that. We cannot seek endless protection from unknown risks. Yet too many in positions of authority refuse to accept this.
They seek to provide an illusion of certainty, often relying on frightening statistics, the result of which could be a perpetual cycle of lockdowns. After two years we cannot have more of the same. We cannot continue to ignore the harms and divisions caused by closing down society – the sickness and death on the other side of the Covid balance sheet – or the fact that those who suffer most from shutting the economy are the young and the poor.
Togetherness is at the heart of our wellbeing, and in destroying that we risk tearing apart the very fabric of society.
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