Britain has suffered 813 coronavirus hospital deaths after the government was accused of ‘scaremongering’ over a claim the Kent variant was 30 per cent more deadly.
The figure was a decrease of ten per cent on last Saturday’s 904 hospital deaths as experts today played down fears a UK variant of the coronavirus is more deadly than the original strain after a ‘scaremongering’ Downing Street press conference last night.
Public Health England medical director Dr Yvonne Doyle said it is not ‘absolutely clear’ if a mutation of the virus first found in Kent is more dangerous.
A further 710 people who tested positive for coronavirus have died in hospital in England, bringing the total number of confirmed deaths reported in hospitals to 65,814, NHS England said on Saturday.
Patients were aged between 25 and 101. All except 33, aged between 28 and 93, had known underlying health conditions. The deaths were between May 27 and January 22.
There were 36 other deaths reported with no positive Covid-19 test result.
There have been a further 1,079 cases of coronavirus in Wales, taking the total number of confirmed cases to 186,915. Public Health Wales reported another 27 deaths, taking the total in Wales since the start of the pandemic to 4,486.
Meanwhile, a further 76 people have died from coronavirus in Scotland, while 1,307 more positive cases have been confirmed.
Since the start of the pandemic, a total of 5,704 people have died under the daily measurement – which counts people who first tested positive for the virus within the previous 28 days.
On Saturday, the Scottish Government said 380,667 people have received their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, up by 22,213 from the previous day.
A total of 5,188 people have received their second dose of the vaccine. There were 2,085 people in hospital with recently confirmed Covid-19 and 159 in intensive care.
It comes after a SAGE warning revealed scientists were only 50 per cent sure the variant could be more fatal was handed to ministers just hours before the official address to the public from Downing Street last night.
Ministers were only informed about the development yesterday morning after members of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), a subcommittee of Sage, discussed the issue on Thursday.
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The group found there was a ‘realistic possibility’ the variant resulted in an increased risk of death when compared with the original strain.
But evidence for increased mortality remains thin – Nervtag papers reveal the term ‘realistic possibility’ is used when scientists are only 40 to 50 per cent confident something is true.
The paper states ‘it should be noted that the absolute risk of death per infection remains low’. Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said if the evidence is correct it would mean three to four more deaths per 1,000 cases.
Chief Scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance even admitted during the press conference evidence the strain is more deadly is still ‘weak’.
The decision to reveal the new information just hours after learning of the development is a yardstick of how alarmed ministers are.
The number of people developing Covid-19 every day appears to have halved in a fortnight from 70,000 on January 8 to 34,000 yesterday, according to the Covid Symptom Study, which uses self-reported symptoms through a mobile app used by around a million people
Critics accused them of ‘scaremongering’ by announcing their fears the Kent strain is more deadly at short notice and without strong supporting evidence.
The gloomy report followed positive news from SAGE that the R rate was between 0.8 and 1 – down from last week when it was between 1.2 and 1.3.
Covid infections are also still falling, down 27 per cent yesterday compared to last week with 40,261 new cases and 1,401 new deaths.
But the Covid Recovery Group of Tory backbenchers and business chiefs are growing increasingly alarmed at suggestions lockdown could stretch well into summer despite Britain’s vaccination programme.
The SAGE paper released last night cited three studies of the risk of death associated with the new strain. They were all based on a study of 2,583 deaths among 1.2million tested individuals:
- A London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine study said the hazard of death within 28 days of a test for the mutant strain compared with non-mutant strains was 1.35 times higher;
- An Imperial College London study of the Case Fatality Rate of the new mutant strain found the risk of death was 1.36 times higher. It used mathematical analysis to look at all cases of the new variant but the total number was not revealed in the papers. The SAGE paper said its data is based on just 8 per cent of the total deaths occurring during the study period. Imperial used the same datasets as London School of Hygience and Tropical Medicine;
- A University of Exeter study suggested the risk of death could be 1.91 times higher. This study matched those with the new variant to those of a similar demographic. The SAGE paper did not reveals its sample size, but its analysis was again based on 8 per cent of the total coronavirus deaths during the study period;
- SAGE admits ‘the results of all studies may not be representative of the total population’;
- Some of the analysis might be comparing frail elderly people in nursing home outbreaks of the Kent variant, which is more transmissible, with healthier elderly people infected with other strains in the community;
- An increase in the severity of infection with the variant would likely lead to an increased risk of hospitalisation, which there is currently no evidence of in individuals suffering from the strain;
- Analysis has not identified an increased risk of death in hospitalised cases of the variant.
PHE’s Dr Doyle said it is still not ‘absolutely clear’ the new variant coronavirus which emerged in the UK is more deadly than the original strain. She said more work was needed to determine whether it was true.
She told the Today programme: ‘There are several investigations going on at the moment. It is not absolutely clear that that will be the case. It is too early to say.
‘There is some evidence, but it is very early evidence. It is small numbers of cases and it is far too early to say this will actually happen.’
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Meanwhile professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Dr Medley said it is still an ‘open question’.
Prof Medley was co-author of a report by the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group. But he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme it was not a ‘game changer’ for dealing with the pandemic.
He said: ‘The question about whether it is more dangerous in terms of mortality I think is still open. There is evidence it is more dangerous but this is a very dangerous virus. In terms of making the situation worse it is not a game changer. It is a very bad thing that is slightly worse.’
Dr Tildesley, a member of Spi-M, said it was still too early to be drawing ‘strong conclusions’ about both the suggested increased mortality rates from the new Covid variant.
In a dramatic sign that the outbreak could be flattening out, SAGE said the R rate was between 0.8 and 1. That is down sharply from last week, when it was between 1.2 and 1.3
He said: ‘I was actually quite surprised the news had been announced at a new conference. It seems to have gone up a little bit from about 10 people per thousand to about 13 which is quite a small rise but it’s based on a relatively small amount of data.
‘I would be wanting to wait for a week or two more, monitoring a little bit more before we draw really strong conclusions about this.’
Speaking on BBC Breakfast he added: ‘I just worry that where we report things pre-emptively where the data are not really particularly strong.’
Professor Peter Horby, who chairs Nervtag, said people needed to put data showing increased mortality rates from the new UK coronavirus variant ‘in perspective’.
He told BBC Breakfast: ‘Initial data didn’t suggest that this was any more serious than the old virus but now the data has started to come in there are a number of streams of data that are coming in that suggest there might be a small increase in risk of death.
‘There are some limitations in the data so we need to be cautious with the interpretations but it is important that people understand that we are looking at this and this may be true.
‘If you look at it as a relative change like 30 or 40% then it sounds really bad but a big change in a very small risk takes it from a very small number to a slightly bigger, but still very small number, so for most people the risk is very, very small.
‘People need to put it into perspective. This is a risk for certain age groups and that risk may have increased but for most people it is still not a serious disease.’
But Prof Horby acknowledged the new data should be taken ‘very seriously’.
He added: ‘This is an unpleasant virus. It’s throwing things at us that are unpleasant and we’re going to have to manage them.’
His comments follow PHE doctor Susan Hopkins, who cautioned people from reading too much into the findings and suggested the evidence was still murky.
She added: ‘There is evidence from some but not all data sources which suggests that the variant of concern which was first detected in the UK may lead to a higher risk of death than the non-variant. Evidence on this variant is still emerging and more work is underway to fully understand how it behaves.’