Health officials have warned Britons to avoid celebrating Christmas with grandparents if they have a cough or cold, after a “dramatic” surge in winter viruses.
They fear that Christmas gatherings will expose vulnerable elderly people to illnesses. Anyone who feels ill has been urged to stay at home alone.
In the run-up to Christmas, the number of people in hospital in England with Covid-19 has hit its highest level in almost two months, with admissions again running above those for people with influenza.
On December 21, 8,643 patients in hospital had tested positive for coronavirus, a rise of 29 per cent on the previous week, National Health Service data shows.
The number of cases is now at its highest point since October 28, having been increasing since the end of last month.
The rate of Covid-19 hospital admissions was 9.6 for every 100,000 people last week, slightly above the equivalent rate for flu admissions, at 8.3.
Flu admissions overtook Covid earlier in December, but have now slipped behind, although both rates are continuing to increase each week.
Covid-19 hospital data is published every Thursday, so it can take time for a trend to emerge.
The latest figures confirm the coronavirus is circulating at increasing levels among the population, although hospital numbers have yet to reach the peaks of earlier this year, when they topped 14,000 during the summer and 16,000 in the spring.
“We are seeing a rise in cases and hospital admissions for both flu and Covid-19 as people continue to mix indoors this winter," said Dr Mary Ramsay, director of public health programmes at the UK Health Security Agency.
“Hospitalisation rates due to Covid-19 remain highest in those aged 65 and over, so it is vital that everyone who is eligible continues to come forward to accept their booster jab before the end of the year.
“Both Covid-19 and flu can cause severe illness or even death for those most vulnerable in our communities.
"And so it is also important to avoid contact with other people if you are unwell in order to help stop infections spreading over the Christmas and new year period.”
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About two thirds of patients in hospital who test positive for Covid-19 are being treated mainly for something else.
But they need to be isolated from people who do not have the virus, putting extra demands on staff already facing pressures from increased demand, delays in discharging medically fit patients, and the spread of other winter infections.
Other figures published on Thursday show that an average of 1,939 people with flu were in hospital in England each day last week, up 67 per cent on 1,162 the previous week.
There has also been a surge in the number of flu patients in critical care beds, with the daily average standing at 149 last week, up 72 per cent from 87.
At the same point in 2021, the NHS had only two flu patients a day in critical care and 32 in general beds.
About one in five people in England in the oldest age groups have yet to receive a booster dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, the latest health agency data shows.
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About 81.6 per cent of people aged 80 and over are likely to have had the shot, along with a similar proportion of 75 to 79-year-olds (81.9 per cent) and 70 to 74-year-olds (78.6 per cent).
Booster inoculation is lower among people aged 65 to 69 (71.4 per cent), 60 to 64 (60.5 per cent), 55 to 59 (51.0 per cent) and 50 to 54 (41.3 per cent).
All people aged 50 and over are able to book an appointment for the booster, providing they had their last shot at least three months ago.
Doses are also available to frontline health and care workers, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.
Antiviral molnupiravir does not cut Covid hospital admissions or deaths in vaccinated, study suggests
The antiviral molnupiravir does not reduce coronavirus hospital admissions or deaths in vaccinated people at high risk, new research suggests.
But the treatment was associated with a shorter recovery time, by four days, and reduced viral load.
People who received molnupiravir reported feeling better compared to those who received usual care, the study found.
Researchers suggest that while the drug could have some benefits in reducing symptoms, the cost of the drug may mean it is not the best choice for the general population, given the study findings.
But it may be useful in reducing the pressure on UK health systems, they said.
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The drug is one of the more expensive antivirals used to treat Covid, with a seven-day course costing about $700, or £577.
Molnupiravir, with the brand name Lagevrio, was the first treatment to be studied by the platform adaptive trial of novel antivirals for early treatment of Covid-19 in the community (Panoramic).
The study was set up to identify which groups of higher-risk people were most likely to benefit from new antiviral treatments.
“Finding effective, safe and scalable early treatments for Covid-19 in the community is the next major frontier in our research response to the ongoing worldwide pandemic," said Chris Butler, professor of primary care in the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences and co-chief investigator of Panoramic.
“It is in the community where treatments could have a massive reach and impact.
“But decisions about who to treat should always be based on evidence from rigorous clinical trials that involve people who would most likely be prescribed the drugs.
“We must not forget the other ongoing pandemic of antibiotic resistance, which in part stems from using antimicrobial drugs at scale before we did rigorous clinical trials to find out who really benefits from treatment, and who does not."
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But Prof Butler said there might be some circumstances where the decision could be made to use the treatment.
“Although this trial found no benefit from molnupiravir treatment on its primary outcome — which hypothesised that treatment with molnupiravir for vaccinated, at-risk patients would reduce the likelihood of hospitalisation or death — the trial suggests that this treatment could have other benefits when being used to treat Covid-19, such as a faster recovery time and reduced follow-up with health services," he said.
“This could help to ease the burden on UK health services through the treatment of selected patients at home, during times of high disease burden and pressure on key services.
“We therefore hope this new evidence will be of use to policymakers when preparing strategies for managing Covid-19 infections over the winter.”
Those enrolled in the study were within five days of symptoms beginning and either aged over 50 years in good health or between 18-50 with underlying health conditions that made them more vulnerable.
A total of 25,786 people were randomly assigned to receive either molnupiravir or the usual standard of NHS care.
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“The results generated by the UCL sub-study show that those participants receiving molnupiravir cleared Sars-CoV-2 more quickly than those receiving only usual care," said Prof Judith Breuer, director of the UCL Pathogen Genomics Unit.
“As part of Panoramic, we are continuing to investigate the impact of the drug on the virus’s genome and on the participants’ antibody responses.”
Prof Sir Jonathan Van-Tam, pro-vice-chancellor for the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at the University of Nottingham and study co-author, said: “While molnupiravir was originally found to work well to reduce hospitalisation in patients with Covid, these were unvaccinated patients.
“This latest research has repeated the exercise in the highly vaccinated population, demonstrating that the vaccine protection is so strong that there is no obvious benefit from the drug in terms of further reducing hospitalisation and deaths.
“However, symptom duration and virus shedding are both markedly reduced, and we have to wait much longer to know if there will be any discernible effects on long Covid.”
The findings are published in The Lancet journal.