17 January 2022

Is Omicron wave ‘turning around’? New data is ‘cautiously good news’ says leading expert

17 January 2022

The continued drop in UK Covid cases indicates the Omicron wave may well be “turning around”, a leading expert advising the Government has said.

Prof Mike Tildesley, from the University of Warwick and a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M), said that the latest case figures were “cautiously good news” and he hoped the country may have a “flu-type” relationship with the virus by the end of the year.

The latest data shows a 38% drop over the last seven days across the UK in the numbers testing positive for Covid-19, with 70,924 new cases reported on Sunday.

(PA Graphics) (PA Graphics)

Prof Tildesley told BBC Breakfast “it does look like across the whole of the country cases do seem to be falling”, adding: “We have had very, very high case numbers throughout late December and early January – we peaked about 200,000 at one point.

“We do now seem to be a little bit beyond that. Hospital admissions are still relatively high albeit there is some evidence that maybe they’re plateauing or possibly going down in London, which is cautiously good news.

“I would say we probably need about an extra week of data to really see the effect of children going back to school – we’re still only two weeks since children went back to school – but if we still see that over the next week or so, I’d be pretty confident that we are seeing this wave turning around.”

Asked whether changes in testing rules, which means people do not always need a PCR test, may have contributed to the drop in cases, he added: “Yesterday was a Sunday and we were in the region of 70,000 (cases) which is a lot lower than previous Sundays, so I think even taking into account any changes in testing, I think it is pretty clear that the Omicron wave is slowing down.”

My hope is that as we get further into this year and next year, we are dealing with milder versions of Covid and hopefully we have more of a flu-type relationship with it

The expert said he hoped that by the end of the year the nation would have a different relationship with Covid-19.

He explained: “Say we get into a situation where the virus becomes very, very mild and we are living alongside it – we’re not there yet, but hopefully we will be at some point this year – then we do need to talk about not just cases but also hospital admissions and the number of people who are dying with the disease.

“If we can get those numbers as low as possible then hopefully we can see restrictions removed and we can live alongside the virus.

“A while ago I did say probably January is going to be a little bit rocky. If this wave starts to turn around and hopefully as we get towards the warmer weather, we can start to see these restrictions removed and we can have more of a discussion about what living with Covid is going to be like, and hopefully we won’t see a return to restrictions as we get further through the year.”

Prof Tildesley said that, generally speaking, new variants of viruses tend to be more transmissible but “also generally milder”, adding: “So my hope is that as we get further into this year and next year, we are dealing with milder versions of Covid and hopefully we have more of a flu-type relationship with Covid where potentially we protect the vulnerable as we get into the colder weather, but we don’t see a return of restrictions.”

It comes as new rules come into force saying people in England can end their coronavirus isolation after five full days so long as they test negative on days five and six.

(PA Graphics) (PA Graphics)

Ministers had been under pressure to reduce the isolation period – which was previously seven days – to help address staff shortages across the economy and public services by allowing people to return to work earlier.

The Government said research showed that between 20% and 30% of people are still infectious by day six, but the percentage of those released while infectious falls to around 7% if people have two consecutive negative tests and then leave isolation on day six.

Prof Tildesley said the changes to isolation rules do come with “increased risk” but said it was a “practical thing”.

He added: “We’re seeing an awful lot of absences, and it’s particularly concerning in healthcare at the moment actually, so if we can reduce the isolation period then that will allow more people to get back to work.”

Looking at it from a UK point of view, there does appear to be light at the end of the tunnel

Meanwhile, Dr David Nabarro, a World Health Organisation (WHO) special envoy for Covid-19, told Sky News there was “light at the end of the tunnel” for the UK in tackling Covid-19.

He said: “Looking at it from a UK point of view, there does appear to be light at the end of the tunnel… I think that it’s going to be bumpy before we get to the end.

“So even though it’s possible to start imagining that the end of the pandemic is not far away, just – everybody be ready for the possibility that there will be more variations and mutations coming along, or that there will be further challenges, other surges of even Omicron coming.”

Elsewhere, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said it was “looking positive” that Plan B measures could be lifted on January 26, when they are due to be reviewed.

“If you look at infection rates, they remain high, hospitalisations is still high, touching 20,000 people in hospital, but it feels like they’re plateauing,” he told BBC Breakfast.

“The good news is the number of people in ICU has been coming down, certainly in London, which was the epicentre, the level of staff absence in education has remained pretty flat – it was 8% before Christmas, it’s at about 8.5% at the moment.

“So I’m confident that when we review this on January 26, as we said we would do, then we’ll be in a much better place to lift some of these restrictions.”

Meanwhile, all 16 and 17-year-olds in England can get their boosters from Monday, with about 40,000 teenagers eligible for their top-up dose.

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