18 Oct 2021

Government must ‘act now’ to bring down Covid cases, public health expert says

Is the UK going to have to change course on Covid in the face of rising cases, hospitalisations and deaths? Especially as European neighbours such as Italy and France are seeing falls. This week, the Covid passport became enforceable by law in Scotland – so proof of vaccination is needed for large gatherings and nightclubs.

Prof Azeem Majeed, head of the Primary Care and Public Health department at Imperial College in London, spoke to Channel 4 News as covid cases surge. Government figures released on Monday show there were 49,156 new cases in the UK – the highest number since mid-July. Professor Majeed warned that “we must act now” before it gets “out of control”. 

Prof Azeem Majeed (AM): It is very concerning, in recent days we’ve seen around 45,000 cases per day. Deaths remain quite low compared to January of this year, but they are now beginning to creep up again. There is a risk if case numbers keep on continuing, we’ll see cases occurring more in older people who are at great risk of death.

Krishnan Guru-Murthy (KGM): Who are the people who are being hospitalised now and the people who are dying?

AM: The risk is greatest amongst those who are unvaccinated, so they remain at greatest risk. But there are people who are vaccinated who are also being injured and dying as well. The vaccines work very well, but aren’t fully effective. There is a slim margin of error with them. And so some people who are vaccinated will have a serious illness, and some of those unfortunately will die.

KGM: What about children? How many children are being hospitalised?

AM: Although the infection numbers are very high in children, the risk of serious outcomes fortunately is very low, so the numbers of those being admitted are quite quite low and the numbers dying are very, very low.

KGM: Looking at the numbers, though, what seems to be rather concerning is the extent of people who are vaccinated who are getting the disease, but also at risk of getting the disease seriously. Because the numbers seem to drop off, the protection seems to drop off, particularly from the AstraZeneca vaccine.

AM: Over time there’s a waning of immunity in people, particularly amongst older people, it was a lot of people who had AstraZeneca as well by and large earlier this year. And so we are finding after around four, five, six months, there’s some weakened immunity. They still work very well, but the immunity is not quite as good as it would have been early on after the vaccine was given.

KGM: When you say four, five, six months, that’s quite worrying, isn’t it? Because for a lot of people, they are not eligible for that booster until six months after their second dose. So there’s going to be a gap of protection isn’t there?

AM: They still work very well but the protection does reduce a little bit after four or five months. Fortunately that reduction is quite small. So I think for most people six months for a booster would be fine for most of our population.

KGM: But if you look at Israel, for example, they’ve seen a spike, haven’t they, in terms of drop off? So we’re now going into that spike.

AM: We started earlier. We’re seeing a kind of drop of immunity at the moment in the UK compared to some European countries, which started later. And even places like Israel, which have very high vaccine uptakes, are still seeing very high rates of infections and admissions. So it shows the vaccines do work, but they do need to be boosted at regular intervals.

KGM: Do you think there are arguments to make the booster available sooner?

AM: Currently, the NHS is struggling to deliver boosters to everyone who’s eligible. So I think we need to focus on those who are the priority, the over 50s, NHS staff, people working or living in care homes and people who live with adults who are vulnerable.

KGM: A lot of people assume that if they’ve had two jabs, they’re not really at any risk of getting seriously ill or dying. Are they right?

AM: They’re right to an extent. So the vaccines will protect you, but it’s a probability, it’s not an absolute protection. So of those who are vaccinated, the vast majority won’t have a serious illness, but some will have a serious illness. The more cases we have in the UK, the more chance there is for people to get a serious illness despite being vaccinated. So it’s very important to get the case numbers down using other measures other than vaccination as well, such as face masks and being careful with large indoor gatherings as well.

KGM: So do you think something’s going to have to give this winter, either restrictions coming back or real serious consequences for the NHS?

AM: Yeah, that’s correct. I think we need to act now. So we need to increase the pace of our vaccination programme, target those who have not been vaccinated at all, speed up boosters, speed up vaccinations for children.

KGM: So you think the government’s going to have to issue new guidance?

AM: So I think we need to act now, before things get out of control and case numbers rise even further.