Daily Covid deaths are currently running at less than half the rate expected in a bad flu year, MailOnline analysis suggests as experts claim the UK is finally on the brink of beating the pandemic.
There are growing calls for No10 to learn to live with Covid rather than focus on halting the spread of the virus now there is such a big disconnect between infections and deaths.
Right now just 130 people are dying from the coronavirus every day in England at what is believed to be the peak of the Omicron outbreak, compared to 1,300 last January before vaccines were widely available.
Daily deaths have barely moved since the start of autumn, despite infection rates more than quadrupling over the same time following the emergence of the ultra-transmissible variant.
For comparison, Government estimates show there were more than 400 influenza deaths per day at the peak of the last bad flu season in 2017/18, and almost 300 daily fatalities the previous year. Just like this winter, hospitals were forced to cancel routine operations and patients were told to steer clear of A&E units during both of those outbreaks.
Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert from the University of East Anglia, said the figures showed that the burden of Covid is now comparable to flu. He told MailOnline Covid would ‘almost certainly’ get weaker every year as people develop natural immunity and eventually become a common cold that kills only the very vulnerable further down the line.
‘Once we’re past this Omicron peak — excluding another unexpected variant that reverses all of our progress — then we’ll be close to the point of endemic,’ Professor Hunter added.
His comments come after Dr Clive Dix, the former chief of the UK’s vaccine taskforce, called for a return to a ‘new normality’ and for Covid to be treated like the flu now that they have a similar death rate.
MailOnline analysis shows the UK’s case fatality rate — the proportion of confirmed infections that end in death — has shrunk 21-fold from 3 per cent last winter to 0.15 per cent at the end of December. For comparison, seasonal influenza is thought to have a case-fatality rate of around 0.1 per cent but fewer tests are done. Other scientists expect the infection-fatality rate, which is naturally even lower, to be similar.
Dr Dix, who was instrumental in acquiring the UK’s initial Covid jab supply, called for mass population-based vaccination to end in favour of a ‘targeted strategy’ aimed at the vulnerable.
There are also calls for routine testing to be scrapped to put an end to the self-isolation crisis plaguing businesses and vital services now that Omicron is causing little or no symptoms for most. Writing in the Mail today, Professor Angus Dalgleish, an oncologist at St George’s University, said mass screening was beginning to amount to ‘national self-harm’.
To work out flu deaths, the UK Health Security Agency — formerly Public Health England — estimates them using a statistical model, which looks at the prevalence of flu and excess winter fatalities. The cumulative number of fatalities was estimated to be in the region of 15,000 in 2016/17, with about 300 people dying every day at the peak. In 2017/18, during the Aussie flu outbreak, a total of 22,000 people were killed by influenza, with in excess of 400 dying per day at the worst of the epidemic. But in 2018/19 just 4,000 were estimated to have died to the virus, with just tens of people dying per day at the peak
How flu and Covid compare to other leading causes of death: Cancer is the biggest killer, taking around 166,000 lives every year, followed by dementia and heart disease. Covid has killed More than 150,000 Britons since the pandemic took off but it is expected to settle down and become an endemic illness in the coming years
Since the first case of Omicron was spotted in England on November 27, there have been roughly 4,000 Covid deaths, some of which will have been Delta due to the lag between cases and severe disease. This equates to about 90 daily deaths
Despite gloomy forecasts by the Government’s scientific advisory panel SAGE of up to 6,000 daily Covid deaths, they have remained flat throughout the Delta and Omicron waves.
A big surge was anticipated as the country moved into winter but that never materialised. There were roughly 100 average daily Covid deaths at the end of August in England, rising to 131 on the latest recent count on January 1.
Comparing Covid and flu deaths is difficult because far fewer people are tested for influenza, which was the case even before the pandemic struck.
Is Omicron even LESS deadly than seasonal flu?
Omicron could be even less deadly than flu, scientists believe in a boost to hopes that the worst of the pandemic is over.
Some experts have always maintained that the coronavirus would eventually morph into a seasonal cold-like virus as the world develops immunity through vaccines and natural infection. But the emergence of the highly-mutated Omicron variant appears to have sped the process up.
MailOnline analysis shows Covid killed one in 33 people who tested positive at the peak of the devastating second wave last January, compared to just one in 670 now. But experts believe the figure could be even lower because of Omicron.
The case fatality rate — the proportion of confirmed infections that end in death — for seasonal influenza is 0.1, the equivalent of one in 1,000.
One former Government adviser today said if the trend continues to drop then ‘we should be asking whether we are justified in having any measures we would not bring for a bad flu season’. But other experts say coronavirus is much more transmissible than flu, meaning it will inevitably cause more deaths.
Meanwhile, researchers at Washington University modelling the next stage of the pandemic expect Omicron to kill up to 99 per cent fewer people than Delta, in another hint it could be less deadly than flu.
No accurate infection-fatality rate (IFR), which is always just a fraction of the CFR because it reflects deaths among everyone who catches the virus, has yet been published for Delta.
But UK Government advisers estimated the overall figure stood at around 0.25 per cent before Omicron burst onto the scene, down from highs of around 1.5 per cent before the advent of life-saving vaccines.
If Omicron is 99 per cent less lethal than Delta, it suggests the current IFR could be as low as 0.0025 per cent, the equivalent of one in 40,000, although experts say this is unlikely. Instead, the Washington modelling estimates the figure actually sits in the region of 0.07 per cent, meaning approximately one in 1,430 people who get infected will succumb to the illness.
Leading researchers estimate flu’s IFR to sit between 0.01 and 0.05 per cent but argue comparing rates for the two illnesses is complicated.
To work out flu deaths, the UK Health Security Agency — formerly Public Health England — estimates them using a statistical model, which looks at the prevalence of flu and excess winter fatalities.
The Government agency estimates there were between 4,000-22,000 annual flu deaths between 2015 and 2020 in England.
The cumulative number of fatalities was estimated to be in the region of 15,000 in 2016/17, with about 300 people dying every day at the peak.
In 2017/18, during the Aussie flu outbreak, a total of 22,000 people were killed by influenza, with in excess of 400 dying per day at the worst of the epidemic.
But in 2018/19 just 4,000 were estimated to have died to the virus, with just tens of people dying per day at the peak.
Between 2013 and 2020, just 600 people in England and Wales officially had influenza as their cause of death due to lack of testing and difficulty distinguishing the underlying reasons.
The FluMomo model used by the UKHSA picks out periods with high mortality and attributes them to influenza or extreme temperatures.
Professor David Spiegelhalter, from Cambridge University, has described the technique as imperfect and warned that it can overestimate influenza deaths, but admits it is the most accurate counting tool available.
Meanwhile, Professor Hunter criticised those who have dismissed Covid as ‘the flu’ since the start of the pandemic but said the UK had now reached a point where comparisons can start to be drawn.
‘[Before,] I would never compare Covid to flu because they are two completely different infectious diseases and I think to compare them right from the start was misunderstood.
‘But in terms of severity, it would appear at the moment Omicron has roughly the same infection mortality rate as influenza and pressure on intensive care units.’
He said: ‘That rate [for Covid] is almost certainly going to drop lower… and if it’s not already, it will almost certainly be weaker than flu.’
Professor Hunter’s comments came as top experts today claimed that the end of the Covid crisis was ‘in sight’ and ministers claimed Britain is on a path to ‘living with’ the virus.
Dr David Nabarro, from the World Health Organisation, said the coronavirus would pose a very difficult situation for the next three months ‘at least’ but insisted ‘we can see the end in sight’.
Meanwhile, Professor Graham Medley, No10’s chief modeller, warned Covid ‘can’t be an emergency forever’ as he said ‘Government decisions’ would need to be made about scrapping mass free testing and vaccinations.
The Prime Minister today hailed the country’s ‘great progress’ against the fourth wave but warned that the NHS is still under huge pressure and urged people to get booster jabs.
MailOnline analysis shows the UK’s case fatality rate — the proportion of confirmed infections that end in death — has shrunk 21-fold from 3 per cent last winter to 0.15 per cent at the end of December. For comparison, seasonal influenza has a case-fatality rate of around 0.1 per cent
MailOnline analysis shows just 0.15 per cent of cases led to a death towards the end of December, compared to highs of over three per cent during the darkest days of last year’s second wave when the Alpha variant was in full motion and the NHS had yet to embark on its vaccination drive. The rate is calculated by comparing average death numbers to average case numbers from two weeks earlier, which is roughly the amount of time it takes for the disease to take hold, experts say
Cambridge University researchers, who are No10 scientific advisors, estimate that less than one per cent of under-75s who catch Covid die from the virus, with the fatality rate dropping for younger age groups. Over-75s are at most risk from the virus, with three per cent of those infected estimated to die from the virus
Catching a common cold may protect you from getting Covid, another study finds
Catching the common cold could also protect against Covid, yet more research has suggested.
Ever since the start of the pandemic, experts have speculated other coronaviruses — which tend to cause runny noses and sore throats — could offer some cross-reactive immunity.
But new real-world evidence has uncovered the ‘clearest evidence’ yet that immunity induced by colds can help fight off Covid.
People with higher levels of T cells from other seasonal coronaviruses were less likely to get infected with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid.
T cells are a key part of the immune system, and hunt down invading pathogens and stop them replicating within the body.
Imperial College London scientists studied 52 people who lived with someone who had tested positive for the virus. Half caught the virus, while the others managed to ward it off.
They took blood samples from the volunteers within days of being exposed to SARS-CoV-2, allowing researchers to determine their T cell levels.
Household contacts who did not test positive had ‘significantly higher levels’ of pre-existing coronavirus-fighting T cells, on average.
These T cells ‘targeted internal proteins within the SARS-CoV-2 virus rather than the spike protein to protect against infection’, the team said.
Professor Ajit Lalvani, one of the researchers, said: ‘Our study provides the clearest evidence to date that T cells induced by common cold coronaviruses play a protective role against SARS-CoV-2 infection.’
But experts warned people cannot rely on having had the common cold alone as protection against Covid and getting triple-jabbed remains ‘the best way to protect yourself’.
On a visit to a vaccination clinic in Uxbridge, Mr Johnson poured cold water on rumours that lateral flow tests may stop being free soon, saying they will stay ‘as long as necessary’.
And he tempered his optimism by stressing that ministers will follow the ‘science’ on whether quarantine can be cut again from seven days without causing another deadly spike in infections.
Both the government and NHS leaders appear increasingly confident that the Omicron wave will not overwhelm services.
Another 141,472 lab-confirmed cases were announced yesterday, but the figure fell for the fifth day in a row and the rate of increase seems to have slowed sharply.
Official data show hospitalisations are slowing across the country — with 2,000 being admitted on average each day in England, half of last January’s peak — and are already falling in London, which was first region to be hit by Omicron.
The number of patients on ventilators has also stayed flat, and overall occupancy levels are no higher than in the winters before the pandemic struck.
Since the first case of Omicron was spotted in England on November 27, there have been roughly 4,000 Covid deaths, some of which will have been Delta due to the lag between cases and severe disease. This equates to about 90 daily deaths.
A similar picture emerges when looking at the Office for National Statistics’ count, which has a more broad definition of Covid deaths and includes anyone with the virus mentioned on the death certificate. It shows there have been roughly 85 deaths per day, although that data only goes up to December 24.
Experts still expect deaths to remain at this level for some weeks due to the sheer amount of cases, even if Covid is becoming less lethal.
Professor Hunter said the lag between infection and death means they could even rise slightly in the coming days due to the spike in cases after Christmas.
He warned that while he expects Covid to be reduced to a common cold within coming years, a new variant that is more transmissible or jab-resistant than Omicron could prolong that process.
Professor Hunter and others acknowledge that Covid is also heaping pressure on the NHS in other ways. The fourth wave of Omicron has led to record staff absences, prompting tens of trusts to declare ‘critical incidents’.
And while 10 times fewer patients are dying from Covid now compared to last January, a significant proportion are still requiring hospital care.
There are currently 2,000 Covid sufferers being admitted to English hospitals each day on average, about half of the level at the worst of the second wave.
In a round of interviews earlier, Housing Secretary Michael Gove said the UK is ‘moving to a situation’ where it is ‘possible to say we can live with Covid and that the pressure on the NHS and on vital public services is abating’.
However, he stressed that ‘we are not there yet’ and dismissed complaints that dire warnings about the possibility of huge numbers of deaths had been ‘scaremongering’.
Mr Johnson is said to be drawing up a new strategy for the transition away from restrictions, which would be implemented by March.
There is speculation it could see lateral flow tests withdrawn for non-high risk situations as well as shorter isolation.
But asked whether free LFDs will be abandoned soon, Mr Johnson said: ‘I think that we will use them as long as they are very important. There’s a similar argument to be had about the quarantine period…. The thing to do is look at the science.
‘We’re looking at that and we will act according to the science as we always have. But the Prime Minister insisted ‘Omicron is still out there, it is incredibly contagious’. ‘We’ve got to make sure that we see off Omicron, we are making great progress,’ he said.
Covid ‘can’t be an emergency forever’: Experts say they ‘can see the end in sight’
Top experts today claimed that the end of the Covid crisis was ‘in sight’ as ministers claimed Britain is on a path to ‘living with’ the virus and Boris Johnson said the Government is ‘looking at’ cutting the self-isolation period again.
Dr David Nabarro, from the World Health Organisation, said coronavirus would pose a very difficult situation for the next three months ‘at least’ but insisted ‘we can see the end in sight’.
Meanwhile, Professor Graham Medley, No10’s chief modeller, warned Covid ‘can’t be an emergency forever’ as he said ‘Government decisions’ would need to be made about scrapping mass testing and vaccinations.
They are the latest scientists to suggest Britain is moving into a new phase of the coronavirus crisis now that it appears increasingly likely the NHS will cope without new restrictions.
Dr Clive Dix, the ex-chief of the UK’s vaccine taskforce, yesterday called for a return to a ‘new normality’ and for Covid to be treated like the flu now that the milder Omicron variant has a similar death rate.
Dr Dix, who was instrumental in acquiring the UK’s Covid jab supply, called for mass population-based vaccination to end in favour of a ‘targeted strategy’ aimed at the vulnerable.
There are also calls for routine testing to be scrapped to put an end to the self-isolation crisis plaguing businesses and vital services now that Omicron is causing little or no symptoms for most.
Writing in the Mail today, Professor Angus Dalgleish, an oncologist at St George’s University, said mass screening amounted to ‘national self-harm’
It came as the Prime Minister today hailed ‘great progress’ against the fourth wave but warned that the NHS is still under significant pressure and urged people to get booster jabs.
On a visit to a vaccination clinic in Uxbridge, he poured cold water on rumours that lateral flow tests could stop being free soon, saying they will stay ‘as long as necessary’.
And he tempered his optimism by stressing that ministers will follow the ‘science’ on whether quarantine can be cut again from seven days without causing another deadly spike in infections.
‘The number of people who have been boosted is 36million, 90 per cent of over-50s have been done but there are still millions who need to do it.
‘Loads of people have had two jabs but they haven’t yet come forward for their boost and I say to everybody: join the movement.’
Dr Nabarro, the WHO’s special envoy on Covid, told Sky News that we need to ‘respect’ the virus but start transitioning to something closer to normal.
‘I’m afraid we are moving through the marathon but there’s no actual way to say that we’re at the end – we can see the end in sight, but we’re not there.
‘And there’s going to be some bumps before we get there.
‘And I can’t tell you how bad they’re going to be, but I can at least tell you what I’m expecting.
‘First of all, this virus is continuing to evolve – we have Omicron but we’ll get more variants.
‘Secondly, it really is affecting the whole world. And, whilst health services in Western Europe are just about coping, in many other parts of the world, they are completely overwhelmed.
‘And thirdly, it’s really clear that there’s no scope for major restrictions in any country, particularly poor countries.
‘People have just got to keep working and so there are some very tough choices for politicians right now.
‘It’s going to be difficult for the next three months at least.’
Asked about a suggestion that there could be coronavirus surges two or three times a year, Dr Nabarro added: ‘The way this virus is behaving, and has behaved really since we first met it, is that it builds up and then surges quite dramatically, and then it comes down again, and then surges again about every three or four months.
‘It’s difficult to use past behaviour to predict the future. And I don’t like doing that too much.
‘But I would agree that the pattern, I think, that is going to happen with this virus is continued surges, and living with Covid means being able to prepare for these surges and to react and really quickly when they occur.
‘Life can go on, we can get the economy going again in many countries, but we just have to be really respectful of the virus and that means having really good plans in place for dealing with the surges.’
Meanwhile, Professor Medley, an expert in infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine at chair of the SPI-M modelling group that feeds into SAGE, said that when Covid becomes an endemic disease, the Government will be able to make ‘cost-effective decisions about how it’s going to manage the disease to improve public health, rather than manage the disease to try and reduce its own risk of hospitals being overcrowded’.
Asked whether that could mean an end to free mass testing and free mass vaccinations, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘The decisions that the Government makes about vaccinating, for example against measles, are based upon decisions in terms of public health, but also the costs.
‘And I think to some extent that approach will become more and more likely as we go forward. Vaccines are really the things that are changing the landscape, both in terms of public health and in terms of decision making.
‘As ever, Government has to make a decision, balancing all these different views and different industries’ perspectives, to come up with what it feels to be the correct policy.
‘So we have an annual vaccination programme against influenza for example, we have childhood vaccination programmes against many other diseases, but we don’t, for example, vaccinate against chickenpox, and that decision is (made by) Government based on looking at all the aspects of the decision.’
Pressed on free tests, Prof Medley said: ‘I think that the value of the moment of getting free tests is that it does allow people to manage their risks. And we have seen since July, the number of submissions was roughly constant, sort of just under 1,000 a day, up until the beginning of December and that can really only come about if people are managing their risks and the free diagnostics have enabled that.’
Asked whether the Omicron wave is over in London but not elsewhere in the country, Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I think that at the moment the testing capacity issues, and the Christmas and the new year, mean that we can’t really rely on cases to tell us what’s going to happen exactly.
‘At the moment we are seeing a relatively high number of admissions, how long that continues, whether that goes up or goes down, I think is unknown at the moment.’
He said the Omicron virus itself is ‘less severe’ than Delta but it is ‘just as threatening’ due to its transmissibility.
Pressed on whether the nation was moving away from a situation where Covid-19 was an ’emergency’, Prof Medley said: ‘I think that that transition is absolutely true. It can’t be an emergency forever.
‘So at some point it will have to stop being an emergency but that is likely to be a phase out rather than an active point in time where somebody can declare the epidemic over.
‘It’s going to fade out and disappear much more slowly than that I think.’