Britain on the brink of fresh Covid wave as new variants threaten NHS

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As cases of Covid-19 surge across the country, experts have warned that a lack of surveillance has left the country flying “blind” to new variants of the virus, some of which could dodge immunity. They warn that the UK is already at the start of a new “devastating” wave of the virus that has sent the entire country into lockdown for months at a stretch since March 2020. While life has largely returned to normal over the past year following a major vaccination drive, experts warned that there is currently inadequate surveillance of new variants, which when combined with a decrease in testing could hamper the NHS’ ability to tackle a new wave. 

According to early data, new subvariants of Omicron have been “evolving around the immunity” that was built up over the past year through vaccinations and Covid infections. 

Professor Tim Spector, co-founder of the Covid ZOE app, told The Independent, that as the winter approaches, these new “immune-evasive” subvariants could cause the UK “real problems”, particularly with the NHS “already on its knees”.

Meanwhile, University of Warwick virologist, Professor Lawrence Young, warned that two Omicron subvariants – BA.2.75.2 derived from BA.2, and BQ1.1 derived from BA.5 – had shown evidence of being able to evade immunity from the virus, which was causing concern among the health experts.

He said: “The biggest concern we’re seeing is that in early data these variants are starting to cause a slight increase in infections. In a way, this was to be expected but it does demonstrate that we’re not out of the woods yet at all with this virus, sadly.”

He warned that while these new variants were slightly different in how they had evolved to reach the same changes needed to escape the body’s immune system.

He said: “What we’re finding is the virus is evolving around the immunity that’s been built up through vaccines and countless infections people have had.”

These warnings come after the latest figures revealed that the UK had a sharp 14 percent rise in Covid cases in the week ending September 17.

During the latest survey, approximately 1.1 million people had tested positive for the virus, making it the first time testing figures have risen since mid-July, which was when the summer wave had peaked, as the Government began facing calls to bring back pandemic-era restrictions.

The experts warned that a lack of surveillance around the new subvariants, combined with factors like the lack of free tests, had created conditions for the “perfect storm” of another Covid spike.

Prof. Young said: “We’ve really taken our eye off the ball with Covid tests. People are going to get various infections over the winter but won’t know what they are because free tests aren’t available – it’s going to be a problem.

“Another angle is the economic pressure. If people do feel poorly they’re not likely to take time off work. You have a perfect storm here, really, of inadequate surveillance, people not coming forward for vaccination and the economic situation.”

As cases surge, various institutions like hospitals may return to pandemic-era restrictions like mask mandates, as the NHS Trust ordered visitors to a number of hospitals in Essex to wear face masks.

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Giles Thorpe, the trust’s chief nurse and director of infection prevention and control, said the need to “enhance infection prevention and control measures” was due to a rise in coronavirus cases.

He said: “That is why we are asking visitors to do their bit again now and help stop the spread of COVID-19 in our hospitals by wearing a surgical face mask when they visit.

“We appreciate face masks are no longer required in many areas of our day-to-day lives, but our hospitals are not the same as a supermarket or a restaurant.

“Many of our patients are already extremely unwell and could be at higher risk of serious illness if they pick up COVID-19. If you cannot wear a surgical face mask, we can offer you a visor as an alternative.”

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