Extra social mixing during the five-day relaxation of coronavirus restrictions over Christmas will put additional pressure on the NHS, the UK’s chief medical officers have warned.
In a letter to the healthcare profession, the CMOs of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland said that November’s lockdown should see numbers of Covid-19 patients in hospital fall over the coming weeks in most parts of the UK.
But they called on hospitals and family doctors to “be ready” for renewed pressure in the weeks after Christmas, and warned that the vaccination programme beginning next week will have only a “marginal” impact in reducing cases and deaths over the next three months.
The first patients should receive the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine on Tuesday, with over-80s and care home residents and staff at the head of the queue to receive the jabs in hospitals across the country.
Business secretary Alok Sharma said the government was “confident” that an initial batch of 800,000 doses will be in the country by that point, after they were cleared for use by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) on Wednesday. The bulk of the 40 million order will not arrive from Belgium until next year.
US coronavirus task force leader Anthony Fauci apologised for suggesting that the MHRA had rushed its authorisation, insisting he had “great faith” in the UK regulator and “did not mean to imply any sloppiness”.
Mr Sharma said the MHRA was regarded as “the gold standard of regulators” by scientists around the world and Britons should feel “entirely confident” in its assessment that the vaccine is safe and effective.
“If it wasn’t it wouldn’t have been approved and wouldn’t have got the clearance from the MHRA,” he said, adding the regulator was “absolutely meticulous” in the process.
But scientists in Independent Sage accused the government of “snatching chaos out of the jaws of sanity” by sparking an international row over the UK’s early authorisation of the vaccine at precisely the moment when the public needs reassurance about its safety.
The vaccines are being supplied in 975-dose pizza box-style cases which must be kept below -70C at all times, said NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson.
“You can only move them four times, and you have to ensure that the two doses are administered three weeks apart, so it’s quite complex,”he said.
“So, what we’re going to be doing is, hospitals are at the moment talking to care home providers to say how can we get your staff to come into those hospital hubs so we can inject them.”
In their joint letter, England’s CMO Chris Whitty and his counterparts Gregor Smith, Frank Atherton and Michael McBride said that this will be an “especially hard” winter for the NHS because of Covid-19.
“Although the very welcome news about vaccines means that we can look forward to 2021 with greater optimism, vaccine deployment will have only a marginal impact in reducing numbers coming into the health service with Covid over the next three months,” they wrote.
“The actions and self-discipline of the whole population during lockdowns and other restrictions have helped reduce the peak and in most parts of the four nations hospital numbers are likely to fall over the next few weeks, but not everywhere.
“The social mixing which occurs around Christmas may well put additional pressure on hospitals and general practice in the new year and we need to be ready for that.”
The four CMOs judged it “likely” that the campaign of vaccination would result in significant reductions in admissions and deaths by the spring.
But they added: “There are many weeks before we get to that stage. We must support one another as a profession as we go to the next, hard months.”
NHS staff will be among the first to be inoculated.
But the CMOs warned that they will have to keep wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) even after getting their two shots of vaccine, as it is not yet certain whether the Pfizer product will prevent them from transmitting the infection.
And they said they expected coronavirus to remain in circulation even after the immunisation programme is complete, although it will be “substantially less important as a cause of mortality and morbidity” in years to come.
Daily figures showed 504 deaths reported on Friday, bringing the UK total to 60,617, with 16,298 new lab-confirmed cases.
The crucial reproduction rate – known as R – was downgraded to between 0.8 and 1, compared to between 0.9 and 1 a week ago, reflecting the prevalence of the virus dwindling.
The Office for National Statistics said that the proportion of people testing positive is estimated to have decreased in all regions of England except the northeast, where rates appear to have levelled off.
Yorkshire & the Humber has the highest rate, with an estimated 1.7 per cent of people in private households testing positive, followed by the northeast and northwest (both 1.6 per cent).
Only in Wales was the proportion of people with Covid-19 rising, from 0.54 per cent in the week to 21 November to 0.6 per cent in the week to 28 November.
Health minister Vaughan Gething said cases had increased in 20 of Wales’s 22 local authority areas on Thursday, with a “rising tide” of infections in both urban and rural areas.
He defended a ban on alcohol sales in pubs, restaurants and cafes which was implemented from 6pm on Friday.
“We face this awful choice of doing nothing and seeing our rates increase and more people not surviving, or doing something like this,” said Mr Gething.
Wales became the first part of the UK to confirm that people getting the coronavirus vaccine will be issued with a credit card-style “immunity passport” to prove they have had the jab.