Evidence the Omicron variant is less severe than originally feared does not remove the threat to the NHS this winter, a health service leader has warned.
Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals and other NHS trusts, said two studies showing that people infected with Omicron were at less risk of being admitted to hospital than those infected with the Delta variant were good news.
But he stressed that it was still not clear exactly what impact the rapid rise in Omicron cases would have on hospital numbers, and said the NHS remained under “incredible pressure”.
Commenting on the studies published on Wednesday, Hopson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We still don’t have conclusive data in terms of what impact Omicron could have in terms of level of hospitalisations.
“We have some very early studies, but it’s a bit like trying to predict the result of a football game when you’re only a third of the way through.”
A study by Imperial College London using data from England suggests that Omicron patients are 40% less likely to need overnight hospital care than Delta patients. A separate report from Scotland found that the risk of hospitalisation could be 70% lower with Omicron than Delta.
Downing Street has not commented directly on the findings, although Boris Johnson is likely to see it as some vindication of his decision to resist calls to announce further restrictions for England after a cabinet meeting on Monday. He has not ruled out measures for the post-Christmas period, but No 10 has indicated nothing will be announced this week.
Hopson argued that the new data did not mean the threat to the NHS had been lifted. “The issue is that we’re in incredible pressure right the way across the health and care system,” he said.
He said the surge in Covid cases was causing staff shortages, and cited as an example the London ambulance service, which this week has 12% of staff off sick.
And he said the NHS was already “busier at this time of year than we’ve ever been before”.
He went on: “Our bed occupancy rate is 94.5% compared to last year’s 89%. That’s a huge difference in terms of much more busy.
“We’ve got 2,800 people every day who are having to wait more than 30 minutes in the back of an ambulance before we can admit them into hospital because we’re so busy.
“Twenty five per cent more people, compared to last year, are having to wait more than 21 days [to be discharged] because our colleagues in social care are under pressure.”
Although Omicron may lead to a smaller proportion of infected people needing hospital treatment, the fear remains, because the variant spreads so rapidly, this could nevertheless amount to a number large enough to risk overwhelming hospitals.
Prof Andrew Hayward, the director of the UCL Institute of Epidemiology and Healthcare and one of the government’s scientific advisers, told the same programme that the new studies were “undeniably good news” but that the country was “definitely not out of the danger zone”.
He went on: “I think perhaps we can downgrade this from a hurricane to a very severe storm.”
In an article for the Sun, Johnson urged people to take “extra care” before meeting relatives at Christmas and to get a booster jab if they have not done so already.