Omicron has swept through the UK with infections at record levels for the past three weeks and hospital admissions are now on the rise.
One in ten NHS staff are also off work, with many isolating, placing additional strain on the health service – though it is no worse than at this time last year.
But Boris Johnson is confident the country can ride out the current wave without further restrictions.
So is there reason for optimism?
Hospitals in England have had fewer beds occupied this winter than they did pre-Covid, latest figures show. An average of 89,097 general and acute beds were open each day in the week to December 26, of which 77,901 were occupied.
But the NHS was looking after more hospital patients in the week to December 26, 2019. Data from NHS England show there were an average of 95,917 beds open and 86,078 occupied that week, giving an occupancy rate of 89.7 per cent.
This is higher than the 87.4 per cent in the most recent data, suggesting there is room for further admissions.
The number of beds unavailable because of Norovirus outbreaks has almost halved, which makes it easier to move patients around, allowing for further admissions.
Boris Johnson is confident the country can ride out the current wave without further restrictions
Hospitals in England have had fewer beds occupied this winter than they did pre-Covid, latest figures show. An average of 89,097 general and acute beds were open each day in the week to December 26, of which 77,901 were occupied (pictured, a Covid patient on a ventilator at UCL)
Where’s the flu?
Despite bleak warnings of a ‘double peak’ of flu and Covid crippling the NHS, seasonal influenza has yet to take off – reducing normal winter pressures on hospitals.
Flu cases are currently 95 per cent below levels of 2019-20, the last winter before the pandemic.
During the last bad flu season, in 2017-2018 there were 22,000 flu deaths in England and Wales – but latest ONS data shows that over the past month there have been just 1,640 deaths due to flu.
Spare intensive care capacity
The NHS has more spare capacity in intensive care now than it did pre-pandemic and could open even more beds if it needed to.
The number of Covid patients in critical care in England is half the level of previous peaks. There were an average of 4,079 adult critical care beds open each day in the week to December 26, but only 75 per cent of them – 3,058 – were occupied.
Compare that to an occupancy rate of 79.6 per cent in the week to December 26, 2019, when there was an average of 3,647 adult critical care beds open and 2,903 occupied.
On January 24 last year there were 3,736 Covid patients in intensive care in England – the highest of the pandemic – with 6,270 critical beds open for any illness.
Covid infections in England have soared to record levels, but the number of patients in intensive care has remained flat since Omicron emerged in the UK.
Just five per cent of patients in hospital with Covid are on mechanical ventilators, compared with 11 per cent at the peak of the pandemic last January. The number of Covid patients in England’s hospitals has doubled in the past fortnight and there are currently 15,659 patients receiving treatment.
But only 769 are on ventilators – fewer than two months ago when cases were significantly lower. At the peak last January, there were 34,336 Covid patients in England’s hospitals, including 3,736 in intensive care.
And the proportion of patients with Covid in hospital who then end up in intensive care has plummeted compared with the numbers in April.
Fewer A&E admissions
Fewer people are attending A&E and being admitted to hospital as an emergency with any illness than before the pandemic.
There were 2,040,323 A&E attendances in England in November, down from 2,143,505 in the same month in 2019.
The number being admitted to hospital as an emergency has also fallen, from 559,556 to 506,238.
However, patients are being made to wait longer in A&E, with just 74 per cent admitted, transferred and discharged within four hours in November 2021.
The fall in attendances and admissions comes despite doctors now having to treat patients with coronavirus, indicating reduced demand from other conditions.
But the number of patients made to wait more than 12 hours for a hospital bed after doctors decided to admit them has rocketed from 1,111 to 10,646.
Omicron is good news
Multiple studies now show Omicron is less dangerous than previous variants, raising hopes it may be possible finally to learn to live with the virus.
South Africa was able to lift its night-time curfew for the first time in 21 months in December after the Omicron wave peaked without overwhelming hospitals.
A study on hospital admissions in the country, where cases first accelerated, revealed it may be ten-times less deadly than previous variants.
The UK Health Security Agency said data shows people are half as likely to have to attend A&E or be admitted to hospital with Omicron as they are with Delta. And they say the risk of hospital admission alone for Omicron – which now accounts for nine in ten infections – is around a third of that for Delta.
Booster drive is key
The UK has given a booster to a higher proportion of its population than any EU country. Those boosted are eight times less likely to end up in hospital than those who are unvaccinated, UK Health Security Agency data shows.
Around 34.5million people in the UK have received a third dose of the vaccine, which helps protect them and reduces the chances of the NHS becoming overwhelmed with Covid patients.
People no longer have any protection against symptomatic infection from the variant 20 weeks after a second dose of AstraZeneca.
And vaccine effectiveness also wanes over the same period of time in Pfizer and Moderna jabs, down to just 10 per cent.
But the vaccine is 88 per cent effective at protecting against hospital admission two weeks after a booster shot, highlighting its importance.
Up to 90 per cent of patients in intensive care with Covid have not had their booster and over 60 per cent have not had any vaccine at all.