Covid will post threat to UK for next five years, experts warn

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Coronavirus could be a serious issue for years to come (AFP via Getty Images)

Covid will be a threat to the UK for at least the next five years, scientific advisers have warned the government.

A report prepared by the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, Operational sub-group (Spi-M) panel revealed that it will take “at least a further five years for Covid-19 to settle to a predictable endemic state” – where the virus lingers in the background but does not threaten to cause widespread infection and rapidly overwhelm the NHS.

The report – produced before the omicron variant was found and released on Friday – added that it is “highly likely that continuation of active management of SARS-CoV-2 will be required for the long-term. How much vaccination and boosters, and what other interventions (testing, ventilation, isolation of cases, etc) are required over the next five to ten years will be driven by factors that are, as yet, unknown.”

On how long it will take before coronavirus settles to the more predictable endemic state, the Spi-M report says that government policy and the rate at which immunity falls will play large parts in the timeframe.

“Assuming no intervention other than vaccinations, if immunity to SARS-CoV-2 wanes quickly, endemicity will be reached faster, but this will also lead to higher prevalence levels once reached and thus a greater burden on health and care services,” the report says.

Watch: Coronavirus in numbers: Cases rise by 50,584

It adds: “Repeated vaccination may be required to maintain sufficient vaccine-derived immunity for future Covid-19 control. It is a realistic possibility that, over the next five years, there will be epidemics of sufficient size to overwhelm health and care services.”

The warning comes as 75 cases of the new omicron variant were identified in England with warnings of community spread now emerging, the UK Health and Security Agency said.

The government also released minutes of an emergency meeting of respiratory disease specialists who discussed the omicron variant last Thursday (25 November). Sage advisers cautioned that a “very stringent response” from Downing Street may be needed, while scientists in the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) said a spike in cases could overwhelm the NHS.

Nervtag, which is a sub-group of Sage, also said in the meeting that it could not rule out that a possible infection wave caused by omicron would be of a magnitude similar, or even large than previous waves.

In the eventuality of such an outcome, this surge in infections “will be accompanied by a wave of severe cases, and the subgroup cannot rule out that this may be sufficient to overwhelm NHS capacity,” Nervtag added.

The experts similarly called for “early and robust actions” to limit the spread of the variant in the UK. They did not specify measures, but reiterated the need for Britain’s vaccine programme to be accelerated. The PM said on Tuesday the government is aiming to have offered all adults a booster by the end of January.

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