London(ANN)-A Public Health England (PHE) briefing for senior NHS officials, leaked to the press, asserts that the UK coronavirus epidemic will, in all likelihood, last until next spring 2021 and may necessitate 7.9 million people being hospitalized.
This is the first admission by senior health professionals directly involved in dealing with the virus which they argue might circulate for another 12 months and result in a great deal of extra strain on an already overstretched NHS.
The document says, “As many as 80% of the population are expected to be infected with Covid-19 in the next 12 months, and up to 15% (7.9 million people) may require hospitalisation.”
The briefing reflects the current official view of the extent to which the infection could affect both the public’s health and that of personnel in critical services such as the NHS, police, the fire brigade and transport.
Drawn up in recent days by PHE’s emergency preparedness and response team and approved as accurate by Dr Susan Hopkins, PHE’s lead official dealing with the outbreak, the document has been shared with NHS hospital bosses and senior doctors in England.
“For the public to hear that it could last for 12 months, people are going to be really upset about that and pretty worried about that,” said Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia.
“A year is entirely plausible. But that figure isn’t well appreciated or understood,” added Hunter, an expert in epidemiology.
“I think it will dip in the summer, towards the end of June, and come back in November, in the way that usual seasonal flu does. I think it will be around forever, but become less severe over time, as immunity builds up,” he added.
Hopes that the arrival of warmer weather this summer would kill it have been erased by the admission that the virus will continue to cause problems for another year.
Also disclosed in the document, an estimated 500,000 of the 5 million people regarded as being vital because they work “in essential services and critical infrastructure” will be off sick at any one time during a month-long peak of the epidemic. The 5 million include 1m NHS staff members and 1.5 million in social care.
At present, a maximum of 4,000 tests can be carried out each day, although there are plans to extend this to 10,000.
As a result there is not enough capacity to test all essential workers, given there are around 5 million people in “essential services and critical infrastructure” and another 2.5 million health and social care staff members.
The briefing does, however, raise questions about how Britain would continue to function normally, cautioning, “It is estimated that at least 10% of people in the UK will have a cough at any one time during the months of peak Covid-19 activity.”
Under revised health advice delivered by Prime Minister Boris Johnson last Thursday, anyone with a cough should self-isolate for at least seven days.
The Society for Acute Medicine (SAM) warned that staffing is one of the major issues facing the NHS in dealing with coronavirus.
“The biggest concern I have in terms of management of Covid-19 is what happens when hospital and community workers become ill or go into isolation,” said former SAM president Nick Scriven. “Or when schools close and NHS staff have to look after young families.”
PHE has declined to comment on the contents of the document, following reports by Channel 4 and The Guardian.
The decision not to test every case of coronavirus conflicts with advice from the World Health Organisation (WHO) to “find, isolate, test and treat every case, to break the chains of transmission”.
“You can’t fight a virus if you don’t know where it is,” said WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Every case we find and treat limits the expansion of the disease.”
As the UK death toll rose to 35, with 330 new cases and a total of 1,391 confirmed cases to date, opposition parties accused Johnson of being “complacent” and “well behind the curve” after a weekend of confusion about the government’s plans to order all over-70s to quarantine themselves.
Criticism of the government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak so far has pushed the prime minister to agree to hold daily briefings from Monday.
It came as health secretary Matt Hancock said that the NHS needs ventilators “more than anything else” to cope with the epidemic.
Manufacturers are being urged to join a “national effort” to produce the equipment in anticipation of a surge in the number of patients requiring intensive care.