One of the government’s top coronavirus advisors said the UK’s epidemic will get worse before it gets better but the peak of it could pass by Easter.
Professor Neil Ferguson added that around a third of people dying from the disease could be considered healthy.
But he thinks the NHS will now be able to cope with the outbreak thanks to the nationwide lockdown that was put in place this week.
Despite fears over a lack of intensive care beds and staff going off sick, Professor Ferguson, from Imperial College London, yesterday told MPs that he is confident the health service will remain ‘within capacity’.
But the CEO of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals around the country, warned medics are already facing a ‘continuous tsunami’ of patients and that the ‘explosion’ of cases was bigger than they had imagined.
Deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries agreed yesterday that she hoped the peak of the virus could be finished by Easter.
People Enjoy the sun in St James’ Park in central London The prime Minister Boris Johnson has insisted that the pubic should stay at home to slow the spread of the coronavirus
Professor Neil Ferguson, director of the MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis at Imperial College London, speaking via video link about the coronavirus outbreak at the Science and Technology Committee at the House of Commons in London yesterday
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Professor Ferguson said: ‘London is going to be very difficult in the next two to three weeks.
‘All I would say is, with the lockdown now in place, those numbers are going to start to plateau. The challenge we have is there’s a lag.
‘The people being admitted to the hospital right now were infected a week, two weeks, even sometimes three weeks ago, so, without doubt, the next one [or] two weeks are going to be very difficult.’
Chief of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson, said on Today that hospitals in London were already struggling but were coping with a huge rise in cases.
He said extra capacity which had been added to deal with the crisis was welcome but was being filled up very quickly – and the Excel conference centre, which is being turned into a field hospital with 4,000 beds – would fill up quickly, too.
Mr Hopson said hospitals had been staggered by ‘the number of patients that are arriving, the speed with which they’re arriving and how ill they are.
‘They talk about wave after wave after wave; the word that’s often used to me is a continuous tsunami and I think, as one CEO said to me yesterday, this is much bigger and much larger numbers with a greater degree of a stretch than you ever have possibly imagined.’
Earlier this month Professor Ferguson, a key member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), produced a report suggesting more than 20,000 people might die from coronavirus.
But yesterday he told Parliament’s science and technology committee that the death toll could be ‘substantially lower than that’.
On Radio 4 today he added that most of the people who were dying were already sick, potentially terminally ill, and would probably have died soon without the virus.
‘Looking at the profile of deaths we see and looking at the expected mortality in those groups… about two-thirds of people who are unfortunately affected by this virus are towards the very end of their lives anyhow, we estimate,’ he said.
‘I should say it still leaves a third, and we have heard cases of really quite healthy, young and, indeed, old people who have been affected and died because of this virus.
‘I think this is important to bear in mind but really shouldn’t affect the decisions we make.’
In even more hopeful news, Andrew Pollard, professor of paediatric infection and immunity at the University of Oxford, who was also called before the committee, said a vaccine could potentially be available within six months.
Previously many experts have said a vaccine which could end the devastation of the pandemic is at least a year away.
‘I believe that six months is possible, but it needs a lot of things to fall in place in order for that to happen,’ Professor Pollard said.
On the NHS, Professor Ferguson said: ‘With the strategy being adopted now, we think that in some areas ICUs (intensive care units) will get very close to capacity but that it will not be breached at a national level.’
He said some regions would be ‘extremely stressed’ by the surge of patients. But he added: ‘We are reasonably confident – it’s all we can be at the current time – that at the national level we will be within capacity.’
A study involving Professor Ferguson had predicted 250,000 people could die in the UK under the Government’s previous strategy of mitigation. He said: ‘We assessed in that report… those fatalities would be probably likely to exceed about 20,000 with effectively a lockdown and social distancing strategy, but it could be substantially lower than that.’
But Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said there was no guarantee the NHS would not exceed its capacity, although the lockdown and NHS work to increase resources would narrow the ‘gap’.
Meanwhile, a study has suggested more years of life could be lost due to recession than will be gained through beating the virus.
If Britain sees a fall in gross domestic product of more than 6.4 per cent, the measures could ‘do more harm than good’, the Bristol University research suggests.
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