England’s chief medical officer has said it is “entirely possible” that the number of daily hospital admissions because of the Omicron variant could exceed the record set for COVID in January.
Appearing before MPs on the health committee, Professor Chris Whitty was asked if the previous peak – 4,583 – could be exceeded.
He replied: “It is possible – because this is going to be very concentrated – that even if it is milder, because it’s concentrated over a short period of time, you could end up with a higher number than that going into hospital on a single day – that is entirely possible.”
But he added that it may be fewer than than, and there are still “huge uncertainties”.
Prof Whitty said the time people spend in hospital is an important indicator of pressure on the NHS.
He explained: “One of the things that really matters to the NHS is how long people stay.
“If, for example, people stay in hospital for a shorter period, because they’re protected by prior vaccination, that means that the total number could still be lower even if the peak number per day is higher.”
He added that the “whole point” about Omicron is that it is “going to be really concentrated in a very short period of time, very possibly”.
Omicron may also peak quickly, and fall away quickly too, the CMO told MPs.
“I think what we will see with this – and I think we are seeing it in South Africa – is that the upswing will be incredibly fast, even if people are taking more cautious actions, as they are.
“That will help slow it down, but it’s still going to be very fast.
“It’ll probably therefore peak really quite fast. My anticipation is it may then come down faster than previous peaks but I wouldn’t want to say that for sure. I’m just saying that that is a possibility.”
Dr Susan Hopkins, the UK Health Security Agency’s chief medical adviser, told the hearing that reliable data on Omicron will not be available until the week between Christmas and New Year at the earliest, and may not appear before early January.
There are currently 15 people being treated in hospital with Omicron, Dr Susan Hopkins added.
She said measures are being taken to improve “data linkage” and new figures would be released on Thursday afternoon.
Professor Whitty clarified: “The real number will be much bigger than that (15). That is simply the number who are proven, just to be clear.”