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Almost 120,000 people could die in hospital this winter in a second wave of coronavirus infections in a “reasonable worst case scenario”, scientists have warned.
A report from the Academy of Medical Sciences – which was commissioned by the government’s chief medical advisor Sir Patrick Vallance – said action must be taken now to avoid a second Covid-19 surge.
The group of 37 experts said hospitals could see 119,900 Covid-19 deaths between September and next June, with a surge in cases coming amid annual winter pressures, including flu.
In this scenario, the R rate – which refers to the number of people an infected person passes the virus onto – would rise to 1.7 from September.
The academic modelling suggests there could be a peak in hospital admissions and deaths in January and February 2021, similar to or worse than the first wave in spring 2020.
The estimations do not include deaths in the community or care homes.
The figures do not take account of potential measures by the government to try and control the rate of transmission – such as lockdown – or the use of drugs like dexamethasone, which has been shown to reduce coronavirus deaths, to treat patients.
Professor Stephen Holgate, a Medical Research Council clinical professor of immunopharmacology who led the study, said the study was not a prediction, “but it is a possibility”.
“The modelling suggests that deaths could be higher with a new wave of Covid-19 this winter, but the risk of this happening could be reduced if we take action immediately,” he said.
To date, 44,830 people have died in the UK after contracting coronavirus.
Holgate said: “With relatively low numbers of Covid-19 cases at the moment, this is a critical window of opportunity to help us prepare for the worst that winter can throw at us.”
He said action that was needed before winter sets in included flu vaccination for the vulnerable and health and social care workers.
NHS Test and Trace must be “upscaled in the winter”, he added, saying more people will need to be tested as winter illnesses can often have similar symptoms to Covid-19.
He also called for a “rapid system of monitoring” in the UK to stop local outbreaks when they occur.
The team also looked at less serious scenarios of what may happen, with an R rate of 1.1 leading to 1,300 hospital deaths between September and June.
They also modelled an R of 1.5, which would lead to 74,800 hospital deaths.
Prof Azra Ghani, chairwoman in infectious disease epidemiology at Imperial College London who worked on the study, said many things could push the R up to 1.7.
She told the PA news agency: “We are looking at what would be the worst that would happen, such as if there was a further relaxing of interventions, more contacts taking place, schools may be a factor, people going back to work and that sort of thing.
“Those things create more contacts, plus people will be indoors more and more people will want to meet up indoors.”
She said the virus was known to spread more easily indoors “and, of course, during the winter, we spend far more time indoors than we do during the summer”.
She added: “In addition, we’re less likely to have our windows open, doors tend to be closed to keep out the cold, and that will again enhance transmission.
“It’s also possible that the virus itself could survive for longer in colder conditions.”
The report said NHS and social care facilities must continue with Covid-19 and Covid-19-free zones, and ensure there is adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff, alongside testing and infection control measures.
It comes after health secretary Matt Hancock told the National Pharmacy Association’s conference on Monday that the government had procured enough flu vaccine to roll out the “biggest flu vaccine programme in history”.
A government spokesman said: “The modelling in this report represents a worst-case scenario based on no government action, and makes clear this isn’t a prediction.
“Thanks to the nation’s collective efforts, the virus is being brought under control. However we remain vigilant and the government will ensure the necessary resources are in place to avoid a second peak that would overwhelm our NHS.
“This includes extensive winter planning to protect the NHS and care sector, further expanding our large-scale testing capacity, contacting thousands through NHS Test and Trace, working intensively on new treatments, and delivering billions of items of PPE to protect our health and social care workers.”