Only a quarter of the rise in newly-occupied NHS Covid beds last week was down to patients actually ill with the virus, official data suggests.
Up-to-date NHS England figures reveal 8,569 infected patients were being treated in hospitals across the country on March 8, up by almost 600 on the previous Tuesday. But over the same time-frame, there was only a jump of 136 coronavirus ‘patients’ who were primarily sick with the virus.
Just 42.7 per cent of beds were taken up by patients mainly being treated for the virus — the lowest proportion on record.
It means the nearly 5,000 other patients were ‘incidental’ cases — those who either test positive after being admitted for another reason, such as a broken leg or heart disease, or beat the illness only to fall ill with something else.
Top experts today insisted the figures offered proof that the spike in hospital admissions seen over the past week was nothing to worry about and merely reflected a surge in infections in the community that has been masked by a lack of testing.
Dr Raghib Ali, a University of Cambridge epidemiologist who advised the Government through the Omicron wave, told MailOnline: ‘When cases go up in the community you would expect numbers of so-called incidentals to do so at the same time because you do not have to wait as long for the virus to incubate and become serious.
‘This week there was a very small rise in primary Covid patients — but the vast majority of new patients are those who aren’t there for the virus.’
Sky-high immunity rates from both vaccines and previous waves, as well as the variant’s intrinsically milder nature, blunted the impact of the last wave. ICU admissions barely budged despite surges in admissions, which experts said signalled that the worst days of the pandemic had been consigned to history and gave ministers confidence to push ahead with their ‘living with Covid’ strategy.
Fears the current surge in hospitalisations was being driven by waning immunity had piled pressure on health chiefs to put ‘oomph’ into speeding up the fourth jab roll-out.
Admissions have already reached their highest levels since the peak of the Omicron wave in the South West, while hospitalisations in over-85s have risen by a quarter over the most recent seven days.
Only a quarter of the rise in newly-occupied NHS Covid beds last week was down to patients actually ill with the virus, NHS England data suggests. Graph shows: Changes in the overall number of Covid patients and the number being primarily treated for the virus over time in England
The NHS England data show increase in overall Covid patients and those primarily for the virus varied wildly across the country. London has the lowest proportion of Covid patients that are primarily being treated for the virus, with only 27 per cent actually in hospital because of an infection
NHS England’s data does not break down admissions by status, meaning it is impossible to tell how many patients who are actually ill with Covid need treatment every day. However, the agency does release a weekly report that lays bare the gap for ‘inpatients’ — the total number of infected patients who are on wards as of 8am that day. Although discharge figures can skew the data, the figures do still suggest the majority of the rise in pressure on hospitals is from patients who are not primarily being treated for the virus. Two areas actually saw a fall in the number of Covid patients who were primarily ill with the virus between March 1 and March 8 — the Midlands and London — even though overall rates went up slightly
Graph shows: The number of Covid patients on ventilators in hospitals in England over time compared to the overall number of coronavirus patients over time
NHS is told to put a bit of ‘oomph’ into fourth Covid jab rollout
Pressure is mounting on the NHS to speed up the rollout of fourth Covid vaccine doses to the vulnerable after virus hospital admissions surged in the past week.
No10’s vaccine advisory panel recommended last month that over-75s, care home residents and patients with weakened immune system should be given the top-up shots around six months after their original booster.
It is almost exactly six months since the last booster rollout was launched, and despite hospital admissions and cases on the rise again the NHS is still yet to send any invite anyone to come forward for their fourth vaccine in England.
Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt yesterday said Britain needed ‘more oomph on fourth jabs’ after seeing a ‘significant shift’ in hospitalisations.
Latest data shows there were 1,406 virus admissions across the UK on March 6, marking a rise of a third in a week. Hospitalisations in over-85s have risen by a quarter over the most recent seven days and the South West is already seeing higher admission numbers than during the height of the Omicron wave in January.
Professor Penny Ward, a pharmaceutical medicine expert at King’s College London, claimed she is ‘surprised’ the Government has not got on with the rollout of fourth jabs.
But the rise in hospitalisations started before official Government figures showed any increase in positive tests, marking a drastic change to how waves have previously played out.
Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline low testing could be masking the size of the outbreak.
He pointed to surveillance data from the Office for National Statistics released today that suggests only 15 per cent of all infections are ‘making it onto the dashboard’.
‘Throughout most of the epidemic it averaged about 40 to 45 per cent,’ Professor Hunter added. ‘There are two possible explanations for this and both are probably playing a role.
‘One, people are not being able to access tests as easily or are less willing to go for testing as they would have been for similar symptoms as a few months back. Two, illness is now more likely to be asymptomatic or very mild and so wouldn’t trigger people to think they would need a test.’
Under NHS rules, patients are required to test before a procedure, meaning many who did not know they had the virus are only finding out when they enter the system for another problem.
NHS England’s data does not break down admissions by status, meaning it is impossible to tell how many patients who are actually ill with Covid need treatment every day.
However, the agency does release a weekly report that lays bare the gap for ‘inpatients’ — the total number of infected patients who are on wards as of 8am that day.
Although discharge figures can skew the data, the figures do still suggest the majority of the rise in pressure on hospitals is from patients who are not primarily being treated for the virus.
Two areas actually saw a fall in the number of Covid beds taken up by patients who were primarily ill with the virus between March 1 and March 8 — the Midlands (16 fewer) and London (three fewer) — even though both of their overall rates went up slightly.
The capital has the lowest proportion of Covid patients that are primarily being treated for the virus, with only 27 per cent actually in hospital because of the infection.
For comparison, the North West had the highest proportion (55 per cent), while the South West — which saw the highest overall rise in Covid patients — had the second largest share (53 per cent).
Professor Hunter told MailOnline while only seeing a small rise in primary patients is positive in the short-term, it does not guarantee there will not be rises in the future.
He said: ‘The increase in people in hospital has largely been “with” rather than “because of” Covid.
‘To a certain extent that is to be expected because otherwise how can you explain the almost simultaneous increase in admissions and cases. We would not normally see any impact of increased cases on hospitalisation rates for at least seven to 10 days.
‘But don’t get too excited: what this may mean is we will start seeing a sudden increase in admissions “because of” Covid in a little over a week’s time.
‘Ultimately SARS-CoV-2 infections will remain common, whilst Covid the disease becomes less common and it is right that we won’t need to be so worried about infection in future then we have been in the past.’
Modelling by the agency estimates that infections started to rebound on February 19, three days before the key milestone. There were 178,300 new infections that day, according to the ONS, compared to the 28,344 officially reported by the Government’s Covid dashboard
Top experts today insisted the figures offered proof that the spike in hospital admissions seen over the past week was nothing to worry about and merely reflected a surge in infections in the community that has been masked by a lack of testing. Graph shows: The number of tests being conducted in the UK over time
ICU admissions in England have largely remained flat despite the uptick in wider hospitalisations across the country. Government dashboard data shows they fell 5.6 per cent to 221 yesterday.
The number of patients requiring ventilator beds barely changed through the Omicron wave, with experts crediting immunity from the booster rollout and previous infection for keeping figures low.
NHS medics still have to separate infected and non-infected patients, which piles extra pressure on hospitals which are already juggling a record backlog. Experts also say the virus can exacerbate other conditions.
It comes as the country’s gold-standard infection survey today confirmed cases have been rising in England since before restrictions were lifted on Freedom Day.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) weekly report estimated 2.07million people had the virus on any given day in the week to March 5, the equivalent of one in 25.
It marked a 7.3 per cent rise on the previous week and covers the first full week after the Government removed all remaining Covid laws on February 24, including the requirement for positive cases to isolate.
The estimate brings the ONS in line with the central testing programme which started to started to report increases in daily cases at the beginning of the month.
The ONS said it was still too early to say definitively that Freedom Day is responsible for the rise, highlighting the newly-dominant Omicron subvariant BA.2 as another possible factor.
Free lateral flow and PCR tests are due to be scrapped at the start of April and ministers will mostly rely on the weekly infection survey to monitor the outbreak as part of their ‘living with Covid’ strategy.
Today’s ONS report, based on around 140,000 swabs, found that cases increased in all of the home nations, with one in 13 people in Northern Ireland carrying the virus last week, one in 18 in Scotland and one in 30 in Wales.