Covid hospitalisations have now peaked in every region of England, official figures suggest amid calls for No10 to bring back economically-crippling curbs to control the outbreak.
Experts have already urged ministers to reintroduce mask mandates and working from home rules in response to estimates that up to one in 20 people were infected last week. Others have raised the prospect of limits on social gatherings, similar to harsh policies adopted during the darkest spell of the pandemic.
But NHS England data shows admissions — considered to be a more reliable indicator of the virus’s trajectory than cases — actually began to fall 10 days ago.
MailOnline analysis shows rates are now dropping in each region, plunging by as much as a fifth in the South East — one of the first areas to see pressure ease off.
Leading commentators said the figures prove the country can handle Covid in its current form without needing to hit the panic button, given that intensive care units never ‘came under pressure’. Just one in 50 infected patients are currently on ventilators, with overall levels just a tenth of that seen at the peak of the pandemic.
It comes just two days after the editors of the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and the Health Service Journal (HSJ) — two of the country’s leading health publications — called for curbs to control the spread of the virus.
In a joint editorial about the ‘dying’ NHS, Dr Kamran Abbasi (BMJ) and Alastair McLellan (HSJ) wrote: ‘The heart of the problem is the failure to recognise the pandemic is far from over and a return to some of the measures taken in the past two years is needed.’
Examples of curbs needed included a return to wearing masks in healthcare settings and on public transport, the reintroduction of the £2billion-a-month free testing scheme, WFH where possible and ‘restrictions on some types and sizes of gathering’.
NHS England data shows an average of 1,720 people were admitted to hospitals in England per day in the week to July 18, the most recent date figures are available for. The figure is down by eight per cent on July 12’s 1,864, when the latest wave’s pressure appears to have peaked. Although high, it is lower than levels experienced during the two previous Omicron waves in January (2,041) and March (2,115). More people were infected during both of those surges, however
Deaths and ICU rates have remained low despite the uptick in cases, with fatalities sitting at roughly 40 a day in England
WHERE ARE THE CURRENT COVID HOTSPOTS?
ENGLAND: 2.8million; 5.27%; one in 19
SCOTLAND: 334,000; 6.34%; one in 16
WALES: 183,500; 6.04%; one in 17
NORTHERN IRELAND: 107,600; 5.86%; one in 17
EAST OF ENGLAND: 5.9%
WEST MIDLANDS: 5.6%
SOUTH WEST: 5.4%
SOUTH EAST: 5.3%
NORTH EAST: 5.2%
EAST MIDLANDS: 5.1%
NORTH WEST: 5%
YORKSHIRE AND THE HUMBER: 4.6%
NHS England data shows an average of 1,720 people were admitted to hospitals in England per day in the week to July 18, the most recent date figures are available for.
The figure is down by eight per cent on July 12’s 1,864, when the latest wave’s pressure appears to have peaked.
Although high, it is lower than levels experienced during the two previous Omicron waves in January (2,041) and March (2,115). More people were infected during both of those surges, however.
The South East has seen the biggest drop (a 16.8 per cent on July 18, compared to its peak), followed by the South West (10.6 per cent) and the East of England (9.2 per cent).
Drops are also clearly visible in London, the Midlands and North West but the curve is much flatter in the North East and Yorkshire.
On top of falling admissions, only a third of ‘patients’ needing care are mainly ill with the virus itself. The rest have incidentally tested positive, NHS figures show.
It means admissions don’t necessarily reflect the true state of Covid, given rates will inevitably soar during times of high transmission.
But officials argue that every infected patient adds pressure to the stretched service because they have to be kept away from non-infected patients, can lead to staff infections and can make those already in hospital with another ailment more unwell.
Deaths and ICU rates have remained low despite the uptick in cases, with fatalities sitting at roughly 40 a day in England.
Top scientists say this is because the variants behind the current wave — BA.4 and BA.5 — are mild, and that sky-high immunity rates from vaccines and previous waves have blunted the virus’s threat.
Professor Robert Dingwall, a sociologist at Nottingham Trent University and former Government adviser, told MailOnline that the trend in admissions suggests Covid infections peaked ‘some days ago and [are] now declining of their own accord’.
Professor Francis Balloux, an infectious disease expert at University College London, told MailOnline that experts were expecting the current wave of infections to peak around July 9 or 10.
‘Hospitals are in line with cases and cases are going down, so the figures are not a big surprise,’ he said.
As long as Omicron remains the most prevalent variant, there should now be a lull in Covid waves due to built up immunity, Professor Balloux said.
Experts have repeatedly said the virus is going to settle into an endemic threat, meaning it will consistently flare-up. Unless it drastically changes, many believe each subsequent wave could make it even milder.
Separate analysis suggests the virus now has an infection-fatality rate similar to that of flu.
NHS England data shows the South East has seen the biggest drop in the seven-day rolling average of hospital admissions (a 16.8 per cent on July 18, compared to its peak), followed by the South West (10.6 per cent) and the East of England (9.2 per cent). Drops are also clearly visible in London, the Midlands and North West but the curve is much flatter in the North East and Yorkshire
The country’s largest virus-tracking project, ran by the Office for National Statistics, has yet to uncover any signs of a decrease in transmission, however. Last week, it estimated 2.8million people were infected in England. Other Covid-monitoring studies have since seen a decline.
It comes after the BMJ and HSJ editors argued restrictions were needed to control high infection rates. While they admitted cases were set to peak shortly, they called for curbs to be brought in.
Dr Kamran Abbasi (BMJ) and Alastair McLellan (HSJ) said: ‘Now is the time to face the fact that the nation’s attempt to “live with Covid” is the straw that is breaking the NHS’s back.
‘The heart of the problem is the failure to recognise that the pandemic is far from over and that a return to some of the measures taken in the past two years is needed.’
They said the increasing number of patients and staff absences has the knock-on effect of limiting the health service’s ability to tackle the backlog of routine care the spiralled during the pandemic. Medics are performing 10 per cent fewer elective surgeries than they did in 2019, despite deadlines for clearing the backlog being based on an increase in capacity.
Similar warnings from Independent Sage, a panel of experts who pushed for a Chinese-style elimination strategy, called for restrictions when cases were already falling.
Omicron’s winter surge fell despite only rules requiring masks to be worn in indoor venues being brought back in — but they were quickly dropped when it was clear the virus was in retreat.
Ministers refused to bring any curbs back during April, when cases soared to pandemic highs.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) weekly infection survey found more than 2.7million Britons were infected with Covid in the last week of June
An exclusive poll for MailOnline found 29 per cent of people have stayed indoors at some point since cases started rising to avoid catching the virus, while 42 per cent have worn a face covering. Almost half (49 per cent) observed social distancing rules that have not been in place since February, while two-thirds (67 per cent) said they had sanitised their hands. Just 16 per cent of people, around one in six, had not taken any precautions in the last month, according to the survey of 1,500 Britons by Redfield & Wilton Strategies
But the BMJ and HSJ bosses said that while the three Omicron waves have caused less severe illness, rising cases pile pressures on hospitals and raise the number of people with long Covid which is a ‘major burden’ on the NHS.
Infections worsen outcomes and recovery for other conditions, reduce hospital capacity and raise staff absences, on top of ‘further hollowing out an already overstretch and exhausted workforce’, they wrote.
But Professor Dingwall said the BMJ and HSJ proposals for restrictions are ‘too late for this wave and unlikely to be relevant to future waves, unless there is a major mutation in the virus’.
‘Each successive wave increases the level of immunity in the community and takes us closer to a reasonably stable endemic state,’ he said.
Professor David Livermore, a microbiologist at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline the restrictions called for by the BMJ and HSJ ‘don’t work, or are disproportionately expensive.’
Meanwhile, the cost of the free tests scheme is ‘unaffordable’, at double the revenue gained for the rise in National Insurance, Professor Livermore noted.
And restrictions on social gatherings are ‘onerous and illiberal’ and were never considered for flu, ‘which is as lethal as current SARS-CoV2 variants’, he added.
Professor Livermore said: ‘Working from home is suitable for some, but is associated with failures of several public bodies, notably the DVLA, HMRC and the Passport Office, all now functioning far more slowly than pre-pandemic.
‘Cases will continue to fluctuate up and down, as the virus “beds in”, just as one of its predecessors did in the 1890s. We have to recognise that reality and live with it. Mostly it is beyond our control. Vaccines help a bit, especially for the most vulnerable.
‘So, it’s really time to live normally; to admit that the over-reaction of the past two years has caused terrible collateral damage, and to have the two potential PMs guarantee that there will never be a repetition of the insanity.’
Professor Balloux said that while Covid infection rates are high, lighter restrictions ‘do very little’ to bring down the R rate — the number of people each infected person passes the virus on to.
Severe China-style curbs would need to be brought in to suppress waves which would be ‘unacceptable’, he said.
Professor Balloux noted that the NHS ‘is really struggling’ from the combination of high Covid rates while battling the backlog but ‘what is really needed is more resources’ for the health service.
‘I’m not convinced we will ever go back to restrictions, I’d be surprised if there was the political will,’ he added.