Britain's virulent new Covid strain adds a third to vaccine herd immunity challenge
UK records second-highest daily toll of pandemic as leading scientist warns of 140,000 deaths
As Britain heads towards its highest death toll since the Second World War, a scientist has suggested that the new strain of coronavirus means the number required for achieving herd immunity has risen by a third.
He also told The National that Britain’s total fatalities could increase from the latest tally of 82,098 to more than 140,000 before the pandemic ends.
Frontline hospital workers have also spoken about being in a wartime situation, where they have to make life-and-death choices over who should be given intensive care beds. Health chiefs are now considering discharging patients early to hotels or their own homes to free up hospital beds.
Downing Street is hoping to deliver 24-hour vaccination centresto speed up the country's inoculation campaign even though the prospect of round-the-clock facilities were played down by some ministers.
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But the ability to achieve herd immunity has risen from about 40 per cent of the population to 66 per cent with the appearance of the mutant strain, said Prof Graeme Ackland, a leading pandemic statistician at Edinburgh University.
Herd immunity is achieved when the virus can no longer spread among the population, through vaccination or people having already been infected.
If the wider population becomes immune, the disease cannot transmit.
In illnesses such as measles, the successful herd immunity percentage is 95 per cent and in polio about 80 per cent.
Prof Ackland said that with the mutant strain infecting at least 50 per cent more people, by his calculation this means 66 per cent of the population needs to be vaccinated to stop it transmitting, a lower percentage than for measles and polio.
The Oxford-educated physicist and engineer estimates that herd immunity will not be achieved until the population of about 67 million has been vaccinated with both shots, possibly not until the spring of 2022.
I think at the moment the number of new infections is probably quite close to the number of vaccinations
But Prof Ackland said the most vulnerable of the population, the elderly and frontline workers, will be vaccinated “just in time", before the onset of winter this year.
“What will happen on the timescale of six or seven months is that we’ll get to some herd immunity,” he said.
“We’ll get there because some people will be vaccinated and other people will have had the disease.
"I think at the moment the number of new infections is probably quite close to the number of vaccinations.
"In a perverse way, the more vaccinations we have the better, but also the more infections we have the sooner herd immunity will happen.”
This article explains how the UK is intending to hit its vaccine targets.
Prof Ackland warned of the “big unknown”: how effective the vaccine will be and whether having it will stop vaccinated people from spreading Covid.
He believes the death toll may exceed 140,000 in Britain, below the government estimate of 200,000 if there had been no vaccine.
The Office for National Statistics released new figures that showed Covid-19 now accounted for a third of all deaths in Britain in the first week of January.
Data from Public Health England also showed an exponential rise in cases throughout the country in the same week.
But one glimmer of hope in the past week has been news that Covid-19 testing has increased by a third, but positive tests are only up by 5.5 per cent.
“We’re doing many more tests but we’re not getting as many positive results, which means that fewer people are potentially being affected,” said Dr Ilan Kelman, professor of disasters and health at the University of London.
“But everything else is absolutely awful, with deaths over seven days up 50 per cent, which is absolutely devastating.
"We’re basically seeing two fully loaded passenger jet crashes a day. We are looking at this level of deaths, or worse, for very likely at least the next four weeks."
Second-highest daily Covid death toll recorded
On Tuesday, 1,243 more deaths were recorded, the second highest ever daily total. Only the 1,325 recorded on Friday last week was higher.
The highest daily total on this measure during the first wave was 1,224 on April 21.
You have to make tough, objective decisions on who’s going to do well in reality and who’s not going to and you just have to make the latter comfortable
Dr Kelman said the latest figures suggest unnecessary cancer deaths could be in the “thousands,” as people go without the necessary treatment.
"It’s a grim period in Britain’s history and it’s terrible how much people are suffering,” he said.
With herd immunity months away, workers on the pandemic frontline are reporting the horrific decisions required of them in choosing who to put into intensive care, with limited beds available.
“You have to make tough, objective decisions on who’s going to do well in reality and who’s not going to, and you just have to make the latter comfortable,” a senior NHS medic said.
"This is the battlefield as the new strain is an epidemic on top of a pandemic. I’d say we have another six weeks of seeing it get bad in terms of body count.”
One paramedic said it would soon get to the point where injured people are “left lying on the road” as few ambulances were available, or sick people were unwilling to go to hospital for fear of catching Covid-19.
It is also emotionally taxing.
“Usually when the paramedic arrives the patient feels that the emergency is over because we are there to deal with it," the medic said. "But that’s not the case any more.
"You can’t smile behind a face mask, you can’t hold hands and you can’t give much encouragement because very often people know what’s happening and what’s going to happen.
"Our arrival is not good news.”
Military brought in to help NHS in 'wartime' effort
The uniformed services are now being brought in to assist health staff. Firefighters, policemen and the military are being used in roles including ambulance drivers and medical assistants.
The death rate in England has led to emergency morgues being filled with scores of bodies stored at military sites before burial.
The senior health worker suggested that in future, all NHS staff should be trained in a secondary medical role so that they can help out in a national emergency.
“On a warship, a cook will be trained as a medic," they said.
"We should look to do the same thing because currently our numbers are thin, staff are exhausted and burning out. What happens if next year we get another emergency?”
UK a portent of things to come in Europe
There are concerns that while Britain is leading the way in Europe in deaths and vaccines, the continent could well be just weeks away from a similar surge in fatalities.
“It seems that the UK did very well in approving the vaccine faster than other places and is doing reasonably well at getting a vaccination programme running,” Prof Ackland said.
“So you would hope that the Europeans will look across at what’s happening here and figure out that it’s coming their way.
"On that basis, they should be very worried about a very high death rate.”
Updated: January 13, 2021 03:58 PM