Chris Whitty: UK must brace for a difficult Covid winter

Virus has “not thrown its last surprise at us”, says England’s chief medical officer

Britain's Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty speaks during a news conference on the ongoing situation with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), at Downing Street, in London, Britain November 26, 2020.  Jamie Lorriman/Pool via REUTERS
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A fresh surge of Covid is due this winter, with the potential for a troublesome flu season as well, England’s chief medical officer has warned.

Prof Sir Chris Whitty said there was minimal flu last winter but warned it will be back this year “unless the Covid situation is so bad that everybody has started to go back to essentially minimising their social contacts again”.

He told an NHS Confed Conference: “So, either we will have a very significant Covid surge, people will minimise their contacts and we will have less respiratory viruses, or people will be back to a more normal life, there will be some Covid but on top of that we will go back to having a flu surge, an RSV surge in children, and so on.

“I think we need to be aware of and brace for the fact that the coming winter may well be quite a difficult one.”

Prof Whitty said it probably will not be on the scale of last winter but that the NHS still has to brace itself.

He said the current surge of the virus will "definitely" translate into hospital admissions and "undoubtedly" further deaths.

There were 11,007 new cases and 19 deaths within 28 days of a positive test reported across the UK today.

The figure compares with 9,055 cases and nine deaths reported yesterday. Today’s tally is the highest reported since February 19 when just over 12,000 cases were recorded.

It comes as the latest weekly surveillance report from Public Health England (PHE) shows that Covid-19 case rates in all regions of England are continuing to increase.

PHE said case rates in England among all age groups are continuing to rise and the highest rate is among 20 to 29-year-olds, with 195.9 cases per 100,000 people in the seven days to June 13, up week-on-week from 123.6.

This is also the age group to see the biggest week-on-week increase.

Prof Whitty said he is anticipating that case rates will continue to go up in the next few weeks due to the Delta variant being "significantly more transmissible" than the Alpha variant.

“In terms of the medium term, my expectation is that we will get a further winter surge, late autumn/winter surge, and that is because we know that winter and autumn favour respiratory viruses, and therefore it’d be very surprising if this particular highly transmissible respiratory virus was not also favoured,” he said.

Prof Whitty said most people think there will be “further problems over the winter”, adding: “How big they’ll be I think is uncertain, and that partly depends on do we get new variants which can evade vaccines better, and partly depends on how the current wave passes through the UK.

“Then in terms of the medium to longer term, if I look five years out, I would expect us to have polyvalent vaccines which will hold the line to a very large degree against even new variants as they come in and an ability to respond with vaccination to new variants.

“But the period over the next two or three years, I think, new variants may well lead to us having to revaccinate or consider boosting vaccination as they come through.

“So, I think we have to just be aware that Covid has not thrown its last surprise at us and there will be several more over the next period.”

He said there is currently a “further surge” of the virus, adding: “I think the height of that surge is still uncertain and we’ll have to see how this goes over the next several weeks.

“But that will definitely translate into further hospitalisations and, unfortunately, it will undoubtedly translate into further deaths.”

He said there are areas of deprivation which have been repeatedly impacted by Covid-19.

Prof Whitty said: “The geographical areas where Covid has hit have been extremely defined, where the biggest problems have been repeated.

“So, you see in situations in Bradford, in Leicester, in bits of London for example, in bits of the North West, you see repeated areas where places have been hit over and over again in areas of deprivation.

“Indeed in many of them, if you had a map of Covid’s biggest effects now and a map of child deaths in 1850, they look remarkably similar.

“These are areas where deprivation has been prolonged and deeply entrenched.”