Covid hospitalisations will continue to rise for at least two weeks, the government’s chief medical officer has warned.
Professor Sir Chris Whitty said during a Local Government Association conference on Wednesday that the Covid-19 crisis “is not over” and that new variants of the disease could arise at any time.
He pointed to the latest data showing that the number of people with Covid in hospitals has been rising, and said this would likely continue for at least two weeks.
The chief medical officer said the current rise in cases is “currently being driven by Omicron rather than new variants”, but added: “We need to keep a very close eye on this, because at any point new variants could emerge anywhere in the world, including the UK, obviously, as what happened with the Alpha variant.”
He said that fortunately death rates were still low but that hospitalisations meant there was still pressure on the NHS.
When asked about the end of free testing for the public on 1 April, Sir Chris said it was a “trade-off between disparities, because the effects of free testing are probably going to be differential across society, and [there are] very substantial sums that are going into it, which otherwise would be going into other public health issues.
“Ministers have chosen in that balance that they wish to prioritise other things than the free testing, but I don’t think anyone’s got any illusions that there are some downsides to that … no one’s going to claim an easy answer to this, this is a balancing and is fundamentally a ministerial one.”
However, he said that testing for staff within health and social care settings was “slightly different” as the risks to people are greater, and those who are in hospital or care homes are more vulnerable.
He said: “So we’ve always expected there to be a more dynamic approach to testing in healthcare settings, whilst the rates of transmission are very high. So certainly at this point, my view is, whilst I don’t anticipate we’ll be doing the kind of testing regime that we’re currently doing indefinitely, this is certainly a time that the public health advice would be that in areas where you’re dealing with vulnerable populations, we really ought to be being careful.”
Despite the end of free testing, Sir Chris said the UK would maintain a “significant residual capacity” for spotting variants.
The chief medical officer’s comments come on the second anniversary of the day the UK announced a national lockdown.
Mr Whitty said the although the pandemic would be less dominant steadily over time it would be a “significant problem” for the rest of our lives.
“I’m expecting it to be probably in the UK seasonal, but interspersed least for the next two or three years by new variants.”
He said the view the pandemic had moved towards a stable state was “incorrect” and pointed towards Hong Kong where the pandemic is currently “the worst it has been at any time.”