This story's written by Andrew Gregory, the Sunday Times' Health Editor.
The number of people in hospital in England with COVID-19 has fallen 96 per cent since the peak of the pandemic, official data reveals.
Hospital staff are now treating just 700 coronavirus patients a day in England, compared to about 17,000 a day during the middle of April, according to NHS England.
In a further sign of good news, the virus death toll in hospitals has also plummeted. On April 10, the day the highest number of deaths was announced to the nation, NHS England said 866 people had died. On Thursday last week, there were just five hospital deaths across the entire country. It represents a fall of more than 99 per cent from the height of fatalities during the crisis.
Dr Ron Daniels, an intensive care consultant in Birmingham, one of the worst hit areas, said there had been a “huge downturn” in admissions.
Last Thursday, across three hospitals that serve more than 50 per cent of Birmingham’s population, there were just three critically ill COVID-19 patients. “Compare that to where we were a couple of months ago, when we had almost 200 patients ventilated at any one given time, and this is a huge downturn,” he said.
Doctors and health leaders said the dramatic fall in demand means the sick should not delay in seeking help for other illnesses. There are mounting concerns over the impact lockdown has had on the wider health of millions, with cancer, heart and lung disease patients in particular hit by delays to their diagnosis and treatment.
Daniels said the figures showed there was cause to be optimistic, even with the recent rise in cases in some areas such as Aberdeen and Preston.
A future increase in hospital admissions could not be ruled out, he said, but he does not expect one. “I think that’s highly unlikely, because the pubs have been open for over a month, people have been socially interacting heavily during that time, and the natural history of this disease is that if you contract the virus and you’re going to end up in hospital, you’re pretty much in hospital within 15 days of contracting it.”
He said the reason hospital admissions and deaths were plunging is “really difficult to say with precision” but is likely due to a combination of factors, such as the most vulnerable and most likely to fall seriously ill with COVID-19 being infected “very early on in March and April”.
Another factor is that the virus may have become “less angry, less virulent”.
“There is no evolutionary advantage [to a virus] conferred by killing your host. Your desire as a virus is to replicate and you can replicate better in a living host. It may be that that is a factor. I think it quite likely that we’re almost reaching herd immunity.”
His view is supported by recent research by Oxford University, led by the epidemiologist Professor Sunetra Gupta, that suggests the UK may have achieved a sufficient level of herd immunity to prevent a second wave of COVID-19. Scientists say the “threshold” for herd immunity may have been lowered because many people may already be immune to the disease without ever having caught it.
Hospitals are scaling back the number of ward areas used for coronavirus patients, as admissions fall to the lowest levels since the start of the pandemic.
East Suffolk and North Essex NHS Foundation Trust, which provides hospital and community healthcare services to about one million people across the east of England, is treating a “substantially lower” number of patients compared with the peak of the pandemic. Last week Colchester Hospital had just five confirmed COVID-19 patients. Ipswich Hospital had none. Neill Moloney, the trust’s deputy chief executive, said the trend was “really encouraging”.
With virus admissions falling rapidly, Sir Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, has urged hospitals to tackle as much of the waiting list as possible between now and winter. The number of people waiting for treatment is set to hit 10 million by the end of the year.
In a letter to NHS regional directors, Stevens wrote: “Having pulled out all the stops to treat Covid patients over the last few months, our health services now need to redouble their focus on the needs of all other patients too.”
The focus must be switched to “accelerating the return to near-normal levels of non-Covid health services”.
Hospitals have been told to hit 70 per cent of the normal rate of planned operations this month. This must rise to 80 per cent in September for both overnight and day-case procedures, and 90 per cent in October.
This photo from The Times' story will bring tears to Victorian eyes!
People enjoy themselves at a pub in the centre of Manchester, England as lockdown measures ease. Despite people getting out and about, the death toll and hospital admissions are plunging, leading scientists to believe that the “threshold” for herd immunity may have been lowered because many people may already be immune to the disease without ever having caught it. Picture: AFP