Hospitals are empty despite coronavirus cases having gone up over the past month – and it could be because the most vulnerable to the disease have already died, an intensive care specialist claimed today.
Dr Ron Daniels, a consultant in the West Midlands, said there are barely any Covid-19 patients being admitted despite government statistics showing cases had risen throughout July.
More than 1,000 Britons are testing positive for the life-threatening disease each day, on average, data shows – but the figures appears to have started dropping. There are fewer than 100 daily hospital admissions for the virus.
For comparison, up to 5,000 people were diagnosed daily during the darkest days of the crisis in April, and as many as 2,500 of these patients needed hospital care.
However, hospital admission figures at the height of the crisis need to be treated with caution because they were inflated due to a counting error, it emerged last night.
Dr Daniels believes the recent spike in infections is due to young people catching the coronavirus more, who are unlikely to get severely ill and need hospital care.
And older and vulnerable populations may have already had the disease and died, or are being more cautious in fear of catching Covid-19.
Other scientists have theorised the coronavirus has mutated to become less deadly, but this is ‘slightly optimistic’ in Dr Daniels’ eyes.
It comes as official data today suggested England’s coronavirus crisis could be in retreat for good as weekly infections have plummeted by a third in a week. The Office for National Statistics estimates 2,400 people are contracting the disease every day, down 37 per cent from the 3,800 the previous week.
Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Dr Daniels said: ‘I think there are considerations around the positivity rates, but we’re not looking at the case fatality rates and we’re not looking at hospital admissions.
‘We’ve seen cases go up since the beginning of July, and still our hospitals are relatively empty of patients with this condition.
‘We’re seeing very few patients admitted to hospital, let alone requiring intensive care.
‘So, I was on duty over the weekend at one of the West Midlands hospitals and we didn’t receive a single referral for a patient from the wards or emergency departments strongly suspected to have Covid-19. We’re simply not seeing it.’
Some 3,500 people were admitted to hospital on the worst day of the crisis – April 1, data from Public Health England shows.
At that time, around 3,700 people were also testing positive for Covid-19 per day, which does not include the thousands others who were unable to get a test, or who did not show symptoms.
Now, around 1,051 Britons are testing positive for the life-threatening disease each day, on average. It had consistently risen from the start of July and doubled by August 15, when the figure reached a six-week high of 1,097.
But neither hospital admissions or deaths — two other ways health bosses track the disease — ever spiked in line with cases.
There are no more than 870 patients in hospital right now, 70 of whom are on mechanical ventilation. Fewer than 100 patients are being admitted per day.
Experts say the rise in cases have been as a result of more testing being carried out, especially in badly-hit areas such as the North West.
Dr Daniels suspects young people with the infection make up most of the new cases. And because young people are less likely to suffer a severe form of the respiratory disease than their parents or grandparents, they are not being admitted to hospital.
His comments echo those of health chiefs in current Covid-19 hotspots in England.
The majority of cases in the past four weeks in Oldham, in Greater Manchester, has been in women in their 20s, data shows.
And in Birmingham, Dr Justin Varney, the authority’s director of public health, said it was typically 30-year-olds who were testing positive.
He said: ‘What we are seeing, quite specifically, is that those aged from 27 to 40 are testing positive for the virus, much more than other age groups.
‘These would tend to be people who are going to work and are likely socialising in small groups or with other households known to them, attending faith settings, or going to the pub.’
Dr Daniels said: ‘It can be argued, and it’s true, that testing at the moment is identifying a younger population who don’t tend to become as seriously ill.
‘Although, what’s not true is that the young don’t become seriously ill. We treated plenty during the peak. Those in intensive care are now older than they were during the peak – but appear to be less seriously ill, which is interesting.
‘Other explanations might be, that we might have, and this is not what I see going about my daily business, a vulnerable population, the older population and those who are shielding, continuing to to do so and they’re remaining safe.
‘I see older people milling around in the shops and so forth, they are being careful, they are wearing masks, so that might be one thing.
‘The other slightly more macabre thing, is the most vulnerable to this condition might have been exposed to this early on and might have already had this disease with many having sadly died.’
Dr Daniels said there ‘is hope’ SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, has genetically mutated to become less fatal, but that is a ‘little optimistic’.
He said: ‘That is the natural behaviours viruses over time. But coronaviruses mutate rather more slowly than for example influenza viruses, and it might seem a little early for that change to have happened.’
Scientific theory suggests viruses may become weaker over time in a bid to survive. If they only succeed in killing all their human hosts they will run out of road.
Professor Matteo Bassetti, an Italian doctor, has said multiple times in recent months that patients with Covid-19 seem to be faring much better than they were at the start of the epidemic in Italy.
Professor Matteo Bassetti said he is convinced the virus is ‘changing in severity’ and patients are now surviving infections that would have killed them before.
He suggests this could be because of a genetic mutation in the virus making it less lethal, because of improved treatments, or because people are not getting infected with such large doses because of social distancing.
And if the virus’s weakening is true, Covid-19 could even disappear without a for a vaccine by becoming so weak it dies out on its own, he claimed.
Professor Alberto Zangrillo, head of the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan in the northern region of Lombardy, also claimed in June the coronavirus is weaker and ‘no longer clinically exists’.
Speaking to RAI TV channel, Professor Zangrillo said: ‘In reality, the virus clinically no longer exists in Italy.’
But other scientists have hit back at such claims in the past and said there is no scientific evidence that the virus has changed at all.
The figures of those admitted to hospital for coronavirus during the peak of the pandemic were over-reported, it was revealed last night.
People who were suffering from other illnesses were included in data collected to monitor the virus outbreak, according to the Daily Telegraph.
The Government’s Science Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) found that patients were categorised as Covid-19 hospital admissions if they had ever tested positive for the disease.
And they were included in the number of people who were admitted specifically for coronavirus.
Around 20,000 people a week were admitted to hospital with Covid-19 at the peak of the crisis in April, according to government figures.
But following the findings from Sage, the correct figure is not yet known.
It comes after a recent review into the way Public Health England calculated coronavirus deaths.
Thousands of people who died from causes unrelated to the virus were initially included in the statistics.
The UK’s coronavirus death toll was then revised and fell by more than 5,000 as it only included those who died within 28 days of a positive test.
Professor Graham Medley, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, was asked to examine the situation by Sage.
He told the Daily Telegraph: ‘By June, it was becoming clear that people were being admitted to hospital for non-Covid reasons who had tested positive many weeks before.
‘Consequently, the NHS revised its situation report to accommodate this.’
Experts have warned that the over-counting is a worry because the hospital admission figures had been used to look at the current circumstances of the crisis.
Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford, said: ‘The admissions data is a crucial point.. I’d say it is more important than the death data because it is the best marker of the impact of the disease.’
The problem was first noticed on June 18, when government scientists made their worries clear that non-Covid patients were being added to the outbreak statistics, according to Sage minutes.
Public Health England, the NHS Medical Director and Professor Medley were asked to assemble a group.
‘So, we saw with the death statistics, that initially a “Covid death” was defined as any death in which the person had previously tested positive,’ Professor Medley said.
‘The same is true, but even more so, for hospital admissions. In order to capture all the potential manifestations of the disease at the start of the epidemic, all admissions of people who had tested positive were counted as “Covid-related admissions”.’
The NHS then started to only count coronavirus admissions as people who tested positive within a short timeframe of entering hospital, from July 1.
NHS England revealed there had not been a change in the trend line for admissions since the method was altered.
But it is not known how many people were wrongly registered as coronavirus patients before July.
And experts say the correct number is needed to also work out death rates.
Prof Heneghan added: ‘If admissions are going up, then that should drive the lockdown. But currently you have people with active infections, those who have tested positive but have been discharged, and those who have contracted it in hospital, so it isn’t helpful.
‘This really does need sorting out as we go into the winter, otherwise we get into this noisy position where we can’t understand what’s going on.
‘There will be loads of people coming in with different conditions who have survived this, so it’s a huge problem. It’s clouding our judgment as to whether the disease is having a significant impact.’