UK Covid deaths could rise as infections continue to increase, experts warn

Study suggests British trends may show what to expect in other countries as BA.2 variant takes hold worldwide

Health workers move equipment between ambulances outside the Royal London Hospital, on January 7. Reuters

England's rising number of coronavirus infections could lead to an increase in death and hospital admissions, especially in older people, despite high vaccination rates, experts have warned.

Case rates in England have hit new highs, and the two variants of Omicron – BA.1 and BA.2 – have caused peaks in the pandemic – one in January, and another in March, data sshows.

While prevalence is increasing in the oldest age groups, those most likely to suffer from severe illness from Covid-19, results from Imperial College London’s latest React-1 study suggest hospital admissions in England have also been going up.

“The high and increasing prevalence in older adults may increase hospitalisations and deaths despite high levels of vaccination,” the study says.

Prof Christl Donnelly, of Imperial College London and the department of statistics at the University of Oxford, said: “It’s still the case that if you see more infection, you would expect, even if it’s a very small proportion of those, to see more of the severe outcomes.

“So we don’t yet know when we’ll see a peak in the oldest age group – the 55-plus – and because those people are at higher risk of severe outcomes, that is a particular worry.

“It is possible if the prevalence continues to go up, that you will see further increases in the severe outcome rates.”

From March 8 to March 31 there was a prevalence of 6.37 per cent, compared to 4.41 per cent in January.

“We observed Omicron twin peaks as BA.1 replaced Delta and BA.2 replaced BA.1, while at the same time, society opened up with all legal restrictions related to Covid-19 in England lifted as part of its ‘Living with Covid-19’ strategy," said the study, which has been published as a pre-print.

“Nonetheless, there are worrying signs of increasing hospitalisations and deaths due to Covid-19 in England during March 2022, which may reflect the very high and increasing rates of infection, particularly in older people.

“These trends in England may presage what might be expected in the US and other countries as BA.2 takes hold as the predominant variant worldwide.”

The latest data from round 19 will be the last from the React study, which has been running since May 2020.

Buy the experts warn that continuing surveillance is needed to monitor severe outcomes from the disease and to track new variants as they emerge.

“One thing we’ve learned and is very, very clear looking at that whole pattern over the 23 months, is things go along and then something happens," said Prof Paul Elliott, director of the React programme, and chairman in epidemiology and public health medicine at Imperial College London.

“It is really important that there is continued surveillance looking for these new variants and I believe that will be the case.

“As part of the ongoing surveillance of Sars-CoV-2 Covid-19 there is going to be a sequencing facility looking nationally at these variants and picking them up as they appear in the population.”

Dr Layla McCay, director of policy at the National Health Service Confederation, said: “We are now seeing record numbers of people currently infected with Covid, and it’s particularly concerning to note the unprecedented and still rising levels in older people.

“Nearly 20,000 people are now in hospital with Covid in England and the NHS, and its exhausted staff are once again really struggling to cope with increasing admissions and bed occupancy.

“NHS leaders and their teams are increasing their Covid services and reopening coronavirus wards.

"But the government must take heed: combined with chronic staff shortages and a waiting list backlog that now tops 6.1 million, we really need a realistic conversation about the current situation in the health service.”

Updated: April 05, 2022, 11:01 PM