Hospitals are expected to continue facing high numbers of coronavirus cases even after the vaccination of large numbers of elderly people starts to bring death rates down, health secretary Matt Hancock has warned.
Giving evidence to the House of Commons Health Committee, Mr Hancock also said that it might be necessary to revaccinate people as often as every six months to maintain protection against the virus.
Mr Hancock’s comment raises the spectre that lockdown restrictions to ease pressure on the NHS may have to remain in place for some time beyond the mid-February date when the government aims to offer jabs to all of the most at-risk groups in the UK.
It came amid warnings that London hospitals could be short of almost 2,000 beds within a fortnight because of rising numbers of Covid-19 patients. While pressure on the NHS is most intense in the capital, latest figures showed a record 30,370 coronavirus patients in hospital, with 2,821 on ventilation.
The government has set a target of offering vaccines to all over-70s, residents of care homes for the elderly, frontline health and care staff and clinically extremely vulnerable people by 15 February – a total of around 13m people thought to include 85 per cent of those at risk of dying from Covid.
But Mr Hancock told the committee that while he was “as confident as you can be” that the campaign of jabs will bring death rates down from the current daily level of over 1,100, hospitalisations will be slower to fall.
“The reason is that people who are slightly younger spend longer in hospital, often because they survive when somebody who’s very old and frail might not survive for as long,” Mr Hancock told the committee.
“I would expect hospitalisations to fall but I would expect to see the number of deaths falling faster, because of the way we have taken a very targeted approach in the vaccine rollout, to vaccinate those who are most vulnerable first – that is to say the over-80s and care home residents and the NHS and care home staff who look after them.”
The average delay between hospitalisation and death for patients who die from coronavirus in the UK is about seven days. But seriously ill patients who do not succumb to the virus can spend far longer requiring hospital treatment as they fight off the illness.
Hospitals in the north of England are still looking after patients admitted during the region’s spike in cases in the autumn.
The health secretary refused to set a figure on how low hospitalisation numbers would have to fall to trigger a relaxation of the national lockdown ordered on Monday by Boris Johnson. But he made clear that both hospitalisations and deaths would have to fall in order to ease restrictions.
“I don’t want to do it that way, and the reason is twofold,” he told MPs. “Firstly, we’ve set out the conditions that we’ll look at the relaxation of the restrictions, which are that there isn’t another major new variant that causes difficulties with the disease, that the vaccination programme is working and that the number of hospitalisations and deaths is coming down.
“But I don’t have a fixed number of any one of those four in my head. We don’t have fixed thresholds on it, but you can see the direction of travel.”
Mr Hancock said that, as with flu, Covid-19 may return on a seasonal basis in slightly different forms, requiring tweaks to the vaccine to keep it under control.
“There is absolutely no doubt that vaccines and testing will still be a feature next year,” he told the committee.
“We will need both the surveillance testing to be able to understand where the virus is and we will need testing for people who have symptoms, in the same way that you get tested for all sorts of other things.”
On vaccines, Mr Hancock said: “I anticipate we will probably need to revaccinate because we don’t know the longevity of the protection from these vaccines.
“We don’t know how frequently it will be, but it might need to be every six months, it might need to be every year.”