High numbers of coronavirus cases are likely to see the NHS have to deal with a “substantial wave of hospitalisations” in the first two months of 2022, a Dundee expert has warned.
Professor James Chalmers, a consultant respiratory physician at Dundee University’s school of medicine, says the health service is already “under massive pressure, even taking Covid to one side”.
But with record numbers of cases now being recorded in the UK and in Scotland – where 16,857 new infections were announced on Thursday – Prof Chalmers says he is “really concerned” about the impact this will have on the NHS.
Despite progress being made over the last 12 months with vaccination and more treatments for Covid becoming available, the arrival of the new, rapidly spreading Omicron variant has resulted in a situation that the expert says “unfortunately feels very similar to last year”.
Speaking on BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme, Prof Chalmers said: “At the moment through December we have seen very high case numbers, as we did last year, and we only started to see that feed through in Scotland to very high numbers in hospital in the later part of December and the early part of January.
“We’re starting to see an increase in the number of people in hospital in Scotland, we’re above 800 people in hospital at the moment with coronavirus, nationally hospital admissions have risen by 61% across the UK.
“So there are unfortunately similarities with last January. We are expecting, based on Government modelling, a substantial wave of hospitalisations through January and February.”
While he said Omicron “does seem to be a bit of a different beast”, with less severe illness meaning people stay in hospital for a shorter period of time, Prof Chalmers added: “Unfortunately the number of cases are so high the sheer volume of cases may cancel out any reduction in severity that we are seeing with this virus.”
Coronavirus isolations also mean “there’s a lot of staff absences, there’s a lot of gaps in rotas”, he says.
Prof Chalmers continued: “There’s a lot of pressure on people to adapt to sudden changes in work responsibilities because so many people at the moment are having to isolate.
“There is a very high workload of what you would call routine winter care, non-Covid care, because people haven’t stopped becoming ill and this year we haven’t had a lockdown, which means things like other circulating viruses have not reduced and not gone away.
“So the NHS is under massive pressure, even taking Covid to one side.
“Then there has been a persistent pressure from Delta and now from Omicron of continuous hospital admission. So the NHS is really struggling at the moment and I am really concerned about how it is going to fare when the hospitalisation numbers for Covid really increase in January and February.”
With the peak in hospitalisations not expected to hit until “about a month from now”, Prof Chalmers has told how the NHS is struggling with absences and an “exhausted” workforce who have “battled this virus for two years”.
As a result, he said: “I really do think we need to take every measure we can to protect the NHS over the next couple of months.”
He has urged Scots to comply with restrictions to cut socialising and stay at home as much as possible, even over the new year period.
But despite warning the health service faces a “really difficult beginning of the year”, Prof Chalmers is “hoping for a much brighter future”.
He said: “I do genuinely believe we are closer to the end of this pandemic than the beginning in terms of where we are in Scotland, we have better treatments, we have vaccines, I believe the Omicron wave will pass and there will be a very high level of immunity within the population.
“Whether other variants will emerge I don’t know, it is very likely that they will but they may well be still prevented from causing severe disease by the amount of immunity that has been built up in the population.”
His comments came as the latest daily figures show a further 11,962 cases of coronavirus have been recorded in Scotland – ending a run of record-breaking days – and down from the near 17,000 reported yesterday.
That includes 210 in Angus, 355 in Dundee, 581 in Fife and 219 in Perth and Kinross.
Thirteen further deaths among patients who have recently tested positive for the virus have also been recorded across the country.
Meanwhile 859 people in hospital have tested positive for coronavirus, up from 810 the previous day, with the number in intensive care rising by two to 36.
77% of adults get booster or third jab
The Scottish Government has also confirmed that nearly 77% of eligible adults – more than 2.98 million – had received a third or booster Covid vaccine as of Thursday.
It has an aim of getting 80% of people boosted by the bells, but says the high infection levels have caused some people to postpone their appointments.
Next week, people aged 12 to 15 will be able to attend drop-in clinics to get their second dose of the vaccine.