65 per cent of Covid hospital patients tested positive AFTER admission

Two-thirds of new Covid hospital patients in England only tested positive AFTER being admitted for a different illness, official data shows amid mounting evidence Omicron is milder

  • More than half of new ‘Omicron patients’ are actually people being treated in hospital for a different reason 
  • These people are in hospital for physical injuries such as broken bones, heart attacks, or even routine care
  • Ministers are keeping a close eye on Covid hospital admissions as they weigh up imposing more restrictions

Two-thirds of new Covid hospital patients in England were actually admitted for a different ailment, MailOnline’s analysis of NHS data suggests – as a growing number of studies show Omicron is much milder than Delta.

In the two weeks to December 21, hospitals in England recorded 563 new coronavirus inpatients — the majority of which are believed to be Omicron now that the variant is the country’s dominant stain.

But just 197 (35 per cent) were being primarily treated for Covid, with the remaining 366 (65 per cent) only testing positive after being admitted for something else.

Experts told MailOnline it was important to distinguish between admissions primarily for Covid so that rising numbers do not spook ministers into more social restrictions or scare the public from going to hospital. 

England’s incidental hospital cases are being driven by London, which has become the UK’s Omicron hotspot and where admissions have been rising sharply.

Just over four in 10 new Omicron hospital patients in London were admitted for a different ailment, MailOnline’s analysis suggests. 

There were 523 more ‘Covid admissions’ resulting in an overnight stay in the two weeks to December 21, after Omicron became dominant in the capital earlier this month. 

Admission rates for Covid in the capital are one factor ministers are keeping an eye on before potentially pulling the trigger on more curbs because London is considered to be a few weeks ahead of the rest of the country in its Omicron outbreak.

Officials are reported to be considering a national two-week ‘circuit breaker’ lockdown after Christmas if London’s daily admissions breach 400 this week — which would signal ‘unsustainable’ pressure on the NHS. 

The latest data show this figure is currently just shy of this threshold, at 301 patients on Monday.

The rising number of so-called ‘incidental cases’ – people who are only diagnosed with the virus after going to the NHS for a different ailment – is in line with the picture in South Africa.

Studies in the epicentre Gauteng province have shown up to three-quarters of Omicron patients there were not admitted primarily for the virus.

It comes as officials warn the NHS faces its busiest ever Christmas, with bed occupancy already at 94.5 per cent up on last year – and 2,800 people a day are having to wait over half an hour in ambulances, as an increasing number of health staff go on sick leave. 

A growing proportion of Covid patients in London’s hospitals are actually being treated for a different ailment. Currently 25 per cent of ‘Covid patients’ originally went to hospital for a different reason, only later testing positive for the virus compared to 17 per cent a fortnight ago

The number of Covid patients in hospital being treated primarily for Covid is actually lower than before Omicron. So called ‘incidental’ Covid admissions, where someone tests positive after arriving in hospital for a different reason, have risen sharply in the past few weeks and now account for the majority of new hospital admissions

With so much stock being placed on numbers of Covid patients, there have been growing calls for the Government to distinguish between people admitted to hospital who happen to have Covid and those admitted because of Covid- to get a clearer picture of the demands the virus itself is putting on the health service.

Dr Raghib Ali, a Cambridge University clinical epidemiologist, said: ‘If you’ve got very high prevalence of Omicron in the community then there is a higher chance anyone who comes to hospital for any reason, even people with broken legs, will have Covid.

Omicron Covid IS milder, three major studies confirm 

Omicron is milder than Delta and far less likely to put someone in hospital, three major studies in England, Scotland and South Africa have confirmed. 

One paper by ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson found the mutant strain was up to 45 per cent less likely to lead to hospitalisation than Delta, based on 300,000 people in England.

The No10 adviser — who just last week warned there could be 5,000 daily Omicron deaths in the UK — said the fourth wave will be ‘nothing like what was seen last year’ on the back of the new findings.

A similar study in Scotland found the risk of being hospitalised was 65 per cent less with Omicron than with Delta — but it was based on 15 hospitalised cases.

University of Edinburgh researchers said Omicron was as severe as Delta they would have seen around 47 people in hospital in Scotland, yet so far there are only 15.

The UK studies came after a major analysis of 160,000 infections in South Africa found an 80 per cent reduced risk of hospitalisation with the new variant compared to its predecessor.

All the evidence now points to Omicron being milder than former variants, confirming claims South African doctors have made for weeks.

But the researchers are still unsure if Omicron is intrinsically milder than past strains and they believe built-up natural and vaccine immunity is probably doing the heavy lifting.

Professor Ferguson — dubbed Professor Lockdown for gloomy modelling that spooked ministers into restrictions — said he was ‘cautiously optimistic’ on the back of all three studies.

But he warned that hospitals could still come under pressure this winter because any reduction in severity will be offset if infections climb to astronomical levels.  

‘It’s just feature of having so much Omicron in the community. It is essential to distinguish between admissions that are primarily for Covid and those that are not. 

‘It’s not only helpful but in many ways essential to know the primary diagnosis and to know how many daily admissions there are for every condition — that would give us an indication of the true pressure on the NHS.’   

Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, an eminent statistician at Cambridge University, told MailOnline: ‘It looks like there is an increasing number of people being admitted to hospital who turn out to have Covid, presumably the Omicron variant.

‘This is perhaps inevitable with a fast-spreading variant in which the majority do not experience symptoms. 

‘But it means there is an extra burden on the hospitals in caring for infected patients.’ 

Covid-infected people put strain on hospitals because they need to be isolated, and, depending on a variety of risk factors, for example if the patient is elderly and/or frail, Covid can exacerbate health problems and later become the primary reason they remain in hospital. 

And NHS officials have increasingly warned the health service is coming under increasing pressure due to Omicron, despite there being fewer Covid patients in hospital now than at the start of November.

According to NHS England data, there were 6,245 Covid patients needing hospital care on December 21. On November 1, almost four weeks before the first Omicron cases was found in the UK, this figure was 7,301. 

Chief executive of NHS Providers Chris Hopson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme said overall bed occupancy, meaning not just Covid, rates are 5 per cent higher than last year, when the country was being ravaged by the Alpha variant.    

‘If you look at the broader picture, we are busier at this time of year than we’ve ever been before,’ he said.

‘Our bed occupancy rate is 94.5 per cent compared to last year’s 89 per cent. That’s a huge difference in terms of much more busy.’

Mr Hopson said around 2,800 people are having to wait more than half an hour in the back of ambulances before being admitted to hospital every day, with staff shortages worsening the strain.

‘I was talking to the chief executive of London Ambulance Service yesterday who was telling me 12 per cent of his staff are currently on sick leave,’ he added. 

‘What you can see is in places where Omicron in particular is spreading though the community you’re finding significant numbers of staff are off.’

It wasn’t all doom and gloom from Mr Hopson however as he added that the NHS is preparing to expand care capacity in case of a ‘surge’ but also said the health service should be able to manage. 

‘What we’re trying to do is at the moment is just what we always do in the NHS, which is to prioritise care based on medical need,” he said.

‘We will and we are identifying places that would be needed if we really really needed to surge.’

Mr Hopson added that the NHS had handled around 40,000 simultaneous Covid hospital cases last January and would be capable of handling the current uptick in admissions, which stands at around 7,000 nationally.

‘We can do this, but the issue is, we’re in incredible pressure right the way across the health system,’ he said.

News of NHS pressures comes along with calls for the Government to clarify its tipping point for imposing further pandemic restrictions, as new figures show the number of NHS staff absent for Covid reasons at acute trusts in London more than doubled last week.

Across England as a whole, 18,829 NHS staff at acute hospital trusts were absent due to Covid on December 19, up 54 per cent from 12,240 a week earlier and up 51 per cent from 12,508 at the start of the month, according to the data from NHS England.

Covid-19 in the UK: All of today’s key data

A large amount of Covid-19 data is being published today ahead of Christmas, including the latest infection levels, antibody estimates, absences for hospital staff and local vaccine take-up, along with the usual daily numbers for cases, hospital admissions and deaths.

Here is a summary of the data that has been published so far:

– Covid-19 antibodies

Covid-19 antibody levels among adults in the UK are estimated to have reached a record high.

Some 95.0% of the adult population of England is likely to have tested positive for antibodies in the week beginning November 29, along with 95.0% in Scotland, 95.3% in Northern Ireland and 93.6% in Wales, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

These are the highest figures for all four nations since the ONS began estimating antibody levels in December 2020.

There has been an increase in antibody positivity in those aged 65 years and over across the UK since early October 2021, which the ONS said was ‘likely as a result of the vaccination booster programme’.

The figures do not include people in hospital, care homes or other communal establishments.

– Hospital staff absences

A total of 3,874 NHS staff at acute hospital trusts in London were absent for Covid-19 reasons on December 19, more than double the number a week earlier (1,540) and more than three times the number at the start of the month (1,174), according to new figures from NHS England.

The total includes staff who were ill with Covid-19 or who were having to self-isolate.

Across England as a whole, 18,829 NHS staff at acute trusts were absent due to Covid-19 reasons on December 19, up 54% from 12,240 a week earlier and up 51% from 12,508 at the start of the month.

– Ambulance handover delays

One in five patients waited at least half an hour to be handed over from ambulance teams to A&E staff at hospitals in England last week.

A total of 16,410 delays of 30 minutes or more were recorded across all acute trusts in the week to December 19, representing 20% of all arrivals, according to NHS England figures.

This is down slightly from 23% of arrivals in the week to December 12.

Some seven per cent of arrivals last week (6,124) took more than 60 minutes to be handed over to A&E teams, down from 10% in the previous week.

A handover delay does not always mean a patient has waited in the ambulance. They may have been moved into an A&E department, but staff were not available to complete the handover.

Analysis by the PA news agency shows that University Hospitals Birmingham reported the highest number of ambulance handover delays of more than 30 minutes in the week to December 19 (760), followed by Barking, Havering & Redbridge University Hospitals (523), North West Anglia (489), University Hospitals of Leicester (449) and University Hospitals Bristol & Weston (440). 

In London, a total of 3,874 NHS staff at acute trusts were absent for Covid reasons on December 19, more than double the number a week earlier (1,540) and more than three times the number at the start of the month (1,174).

The total includes staff who were ill with Covid or who were having to self-isolate due to being in close contact with someone, such as a family member, who has tested positive.  

The figures comes as Boris Johnson faces calls to outline his post-Christmas Covid strategy for England as Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland have already announced new restrictions to tackle the Omicron variant.

Labour called for ‘more clarity’ from the Government on its plans – with Lucy Powell, shadow secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, claiming Mr Johnson is unable to make calls on Covid data because he has ‘lost authority with the public’. 

Ms Powell told Sky News there is a ‘feeling’ that ‘the Prime Minister is not actually able to take those decisions based very clearly on data because he’s got his own political problems, and he’s lost authority with the public in order to convey some of those messages’.

She said: ‘I think what we would like to see … is more clarity around what data points the Government is looking at, where the thresholds lie within those areas that are data points, and if those thresholds are crossed, what action would then follow, or what action wouldn’t follow if the data comes back in a more positive way, as it has done this morning.

‘What are the sort of set of restrictions that may or may not come in depending on those data points? Because at the moment, I think a lot of people just feel like they’re really stabbing in the dark.

‘If you’re running a nightclub, can you stock up for New Year? If (you’ve) got Christmas concerts on or you’re operating a theatre, if you’ve got some travel plans, if you’ve got friends and families coming to stay after Christmas – what is it people can expect based on what information?

‘We’re all a little bit in the dark about that.’

Earlier today, the economy minister for Wales’s Labour Government said he did not think England’s position on Covid restrictions would remain the same ‘for very much longer’.

Vaughan Gething told Times Radio: ‘We’ve doubled our package because we know that there is a direct impact from the alert level two style interventions we’ve had to introduce to protect the public.

‘I’ve met regularly with Dave Chapman (UKHospitality’s executive director for Wales) and other stakeholders over the last few days making clear the seriousness of the position we’re at … we’re actually being a bit more generous than the money that’s on offer in England.

‘Of course, Dave’s talking about England continuing to be open. Well, I’m not sure that’s going to be the position for very much longer.’

Mr Gething also said he thought England was ‘out of step’ with the other three UK nations on its Covid response.

Asked about plans in Wales to curb the spread of the virus, he told Times Radio: ‘Scotland and Northern Ireland have taken relatively similar measures yesterday – it’s England that’s out of step with the other three nations.

‘We’ve done this because of the clear public health advice we’ve got and because we are already starting to see a rise in cases.’

He added: ‘We are a little more cautious certainly than England is – but that’s because we think it’s the right call.’

It also emerged today that people who catch the Omicron variant of Covid may be less likely to end up in hospital amid rising case rates and new restrictions across the UK nations.

Two new studies suggested catching Omicron was less likely to result in severe symptoms and hospital admission than earlier Covid strains like Delta.

However, Professor Neil Ferguson, from the Imperial College London team behind one of the studies, warned Omicron’s severity may be offset by the ‘reduced efficacy’ of vaccines to stop it being transmitted.

Recorded case rates of Covid across the UK rose above 100,000 on Wednesday for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

Ministers have stressed the Government keeping new Covid data in constant review, with health minister Gillian Keegan saying yesterday: ‘There is uncertainty. We can’t predict what the data is going to tell us before we’ve got the data.’

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