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Fourth Covid jabs could be dished out to the elderly and vulnerable as soon as next week following criticism that England has been too slow to respond to rising hospital rates. 

No10’s vaccine advisory panel recommended last month that all over-75s, care home residents and patients with weak immune systems should be given the top-up shots around six months after their original booster. 

But it has now been more than six months since the rollout of third shots was launched and NHS England has yet to send out invites for fourth doses — despite Covid admissions and cases rising again. Scotland embarked on its fourth vaccination campaign more than a week ago.

A number of experts have expressed concern that the uptick in hospitalisations could be an early sign of waning booster immunity, with former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt last week calling for ‘more oomph on fourth jabs’. 

Last night a health source told The Daily Telegraph: ‘We expect the rollout of the next set of boosters for the over-75s and those in elderly care homes to start as soon as next week [in England]. 

‘We are seeing cases increasing amongst the elderly and it’s right that we crack on with it.’  

Texts and letters could start to be sent out as soon as next week, the source said, with the NHS booking system set to open from Monday. 

An NHS spokesperson said: ‘The NHS continues to follow JCVI guidance accepted by Government, and in line with this, the NHS will be vaccinating eligible people with a spring dose six months after their first booster starting later this month for the small number of people eligible before April.’ 

Across the UK, Covid cases have risen 52 per cent in the last week with 70,000 people testing positive on average daily. At the same time, virus admissions have climbed by a fifth in that time, and are rising in older age groups.

However, the Health Secretary Sajid Javid has said increases in cases were to be ‘expected’ following England’s Freedom Day on February 24, when all Covid laws were abandoned. He insisted there was ‘nothing in the data at this point in time that gives us any cause for concern’.

Only a quarter of the rise in newly-occupied NHS Covid beds in the first week of March was down to patients actually ill with the virus, NHS England data suggests. Graph shows: Changes in the overall number of Covid patients and the number being primarily treated for the virus over time in England

Only a quarter of the rise in newly-occupied NHS Covid beds in the first week of March was down to patients actually ill with the virus, NHS England data suggests. Graph shows: Changes in the overall number of Covid patients and the number being primarily treated for the virus over time in England

Only a quarter of the rise in newly-occupied NHS Covid beds in the first week of March was down to patients actually ill with the virus, NHS England data suggests. Graph shows: Changes in the overall number of Covid patients and the number being primarily treated for the virus over time in England

The NHS England data show increase in overall Covid patients and those primarily for the virus varied wildly across the country. London has the lowest proportion of Covid patients that are primarily being treated for the virus, with only 27 per cent actually in hospital because of an infection

The NHS England data show increase in overall Covid patients and those primarily for the virus varied wildly across the country. London has the lowest proportion of Covid patients that are primarily being treated for the virus, with only 27 per cent actually in hospital because of an infection

The NHS England data show increase in overall Covid patients and those primarily for the virus varied wildly across the country. London has the lowest proportion of Covid patients that are primarily being treated for the virus, with only 27 per cent actually in hospital because of an infection

Graph shows: The number of Covid patients on ventilators in hospitals in England over time compared to the overall number of coronavirus patients over time

Graph shows: The number of Covid patients on ventilators in hospitals in England over time compared to the overall number of coronavirus patients over time

Graph shows: The number of Covid patients on ventilators in hospitals in England over time compared to the overall number of coronavirus patients over time

The rise in infections coincides with the rise of the more transmissible subvariant of Omicron, which is feared to be as contagious as measles.

BA.2 is now behind the majority of new cases in England, officials say. It became dominant within just three weeks of the first domestic case being spotted.

An ex-World Health Organization official warned yesterday it is 40 per cent more transmissible than its ancestor, making it around as contagious as measles — one of the most transmissible diseases scientists know of.

There are currently 1,451 daily Covid admissions across Britain, according to the latest data, compared to around 1,100 on Freedom Day in England.

But half of hospital patients with Covid are thought to be ‘incidental’ cases — those who test positive after being admitted for another reason, or beat the illness only to fall ill with something else.

It may mean the recent rise in hospital admissions is more likely to reflect infection rates in the community, rather than severe illness.

But there are still some concerns about waning immunity. Pfizer’s booster drops from 90 per cent effectiveness against severe disease to around 75 per cent after 10 weeks, according to the latest data for Omicron.

The vaccine is believed to work just as well on BA.2 and the sub-strain is considered just as mild as its parent variant.

NHS England's data does not break down admissions by status, meaning it is impossible to tell how many patients who are actually ill with Covid need treatment every day. However, the agency does release a weekly report that lays bare the gap for 'inpatients' — the total number of infected patients who are on wards as of 8am that day. Although discharge figures can skew the data, the figures do still suggest the majority of the rise in pressure on hospitals is from patients who are not primarily being treated for the virus. Two areas actually saw a fall in the number of Covid patients who were primarily ill with the virus between March 1 and March 8 — the Midlands and London — even though overall rates went up slightly

NHS England's data does not break down admissions by status, meaning it is impossible to tell how many patients who are actually ill with Covid need treatment every day. However, the agency does release a weekly report that lays bare the gap for 'inpatients' — the total number of infected patients who are on wards as of 8am that day. Although discharge figures can skew the data, the figures do still suggest the majority of the rise in pressure on hospitals is from patients who are not primarily being treated for the virus. Two areas actually saw a fall in the number of Covid patients who were primarily ill with the virus between March 1 and March 8 — the Midlands and London — even though overall rates went up slightly

NHS England’s data does not break down admissions by status, meaning it is impossible to tell how many patients who are actually ill with Covid need treatment every day. However, the agency does release a weekly report that lays bare the gap for ‘inpatients’ — the total number of infected patients who are on wards as of 8am that day. Although discharge figures can skew the data, the figures do still suggest the majority of the rise in pressure on hospitals is from patients who are not primarily being treated for the virus. Two areas actually saw a fall in the number of Covid patients who were primarily ill with the virus between March 1 and March 8 — the Midlands and London — even though overall rates went up slightly 

Pictured above is the R0 estimates for Covid variants against well-known diseases including the common cold, chickenpox and measles. The latter is estimated to be among the most infectious diseases to target humans

Omicron sub-variant BA.2 is just as contagious as MEASLES, says former World Health Organization official 

A substrain of Omicron spreading rapidly around the world may be as infectious as measles, according to a former World Health Organization (WHO) official. 

Professor Adrian Esterman, a leading epidemiologist in Australia, said BA.2 is 40 per cent more transmissible than the original variant.

He claimed it would have a basic reproduction number (R0) of around 12, meaning if left to spread unchecked every infected person would pass it to a dozen others. 

It would make the sub-strain five times more infectious than the original Wuhan virus and one of the most contagious diseases known to science.   

The claim would explain why the mutant virus was able to outstrip its parent strain in the UK in about a month and undermine China’s zero Covid policy, which has until now managed to suppress every version of the virus.

Explaining his methodology, Professor Esterman said: ‘The basic reproduction number (R0) for BA.1 is about 8.2, making R0 for BA.2 about 12. 

‘This makes it pretty close to measles, the most contagious disease we know about.’  

The R0 number is the average number of people each BA.2 patient would infect, if there was no immunity in a population or behavioural changes. 

But most scientists say there is no reason to be concerned over the variant because it is just as mild as the original Omicron.

The BA.2 sub-variant is now behind almost every case in England, or 83 per cent of infections last week, according to official estimates.

It became dominant three weeks beforehand, accounting for 52 per cent of all infections in the week to February 20. 

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates cases have been rising since mid-February, with one in 25 people in England estimated to have been infected last week.

Hospitalisations are also creeping up, but the majority appear to be incidental — when someone tests positive after admission for another illness. 

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The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) last month recommended fourth doses to the most vulnerable age groups this spring, telling ministers they should be dished out around six months after their last vaccine. 

A wider booster programme is due this autumn.  

JCVI advisers originally recommended third doses on September 14, with over-75s, care home residents and patients with serious underlying health conditions first in the queue. 

While BA.2 is not thought to have evolved to be more severe, scientists say it has rapidly outstripped the original Omicron because it is the significantly more infectious. 

Professor Adrian Esterman, a leading epidemiologist in Australia and former WHO official, claimed the subvariant has a basic reproduction number (R0) of around 12, meaning if left to spread unchecked every infected person would pass it to a dozen others. 

It would make the sub-strain five times more infectious than the original Wuhan virus and one of the most contagious diseases known to science.  

Explaining his methodology, Professor Esterman said: ‘The basic reproduction number (R0) for BA.1 is about 8.2, making R0 for BA.2 about 12. 

‘This makes it pretty close to measles, the most contagious disease we know about.’ 

The R0 number is the average number of people each BA.2 patient would infect, if there was no immunity in a population or behavioural changes. 

But most scientists say there is no reason to be concerned over the variant because it is just as mild as the original Omicron.

In Scotland, where Nicola Sturgeon has opted to keep compulsory face masks until April, officials are predicting that the BA.2 outbreak could peak in the next couple of weeks.

Dr Christine Tait-Burkard, of the University of Edinburgh, said keeping the requirement for face coverings is in line with dealing with the surge and is a ‘relatively easily-achieved measure’.

Masks on public transport, restaurants and other indoor settings were slated to be downgraded from a legal requirement to advice on March 21. 

Ms Sturgeon told MSPs that with the ‘current spike’ in cases, ministers had agreed it was ‘prudent’ for this measure to remain in place and the legal requirement will be reviewed again in two weeks’ time.  

Asked whether it was prudent to keep the requirement for face coverings, Dr Tait Burkard told BBC Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme: ‘It is indeed kind of line with what we are seeing with the new sub-variant of Omicron which is a very big spike in cases, in fact we have the most cases in the population at this point than ever before in the pandemic.

‘It’s also realistic to look at this from about a two-week perspective because what we are seeing in the numbers is that we could probably peak this week or the week thereafter in terms of cases, and we would actually see an easing and a clear indication before lifting face masks, and that’s kind of our last barrier to go, and also our last reminder to go.

‘And at the same time it is a relatively easily-achieved measure that has less impact on the economy. Whilst it might deter some people from going out, it might incentivise others for going out. I think there’s a difficult balance to take there.’

There were 1,996 people in Scottish hospitals on Monday with recently confirmed Covid, up 191 on the previous day, with 33 in intensive care, up six.

That is higher than the Omicron peak of 1,571 which was recorded in January this year, with more patients in hospital than at any time since January 27 last year when the total was 2,016.

Dr Tait Burkard, a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute and an expert on coronaviruses, said that while masks help reduce virus levels in public places, they are less effective against Omicron and BA.2.

She suggested that vulnerable people should be advised to upgrade their masks to FFP2 or N95 masks for more protection.

The academic said: ‘The impacts that the mask wearing makes without many of the other restrictions in place is small, or it’s smaller than it ever was before.

‘One (reason) is that unfortunately with Omicron the kind of less protective masks, the simple surgical masks, the thin ones that you just ring round your ears, the fabric ones, they’re not as protective as they were against the previous variants, just because we need to inhale less of the virus to get infected, so both time of exposure needed to get infected is less, but they still help reducing virus level in public places, and especially for vulnerable people that can make the difference.

‘But there should be also the advice that for vulnerable people it might be a good moment, or probably a very pertinent moment, to upgrade masks to so-called FFP2 or N95 masks, the thicker ones that fit very closely around your face to protect yourself more than others.’

Source: Daily Mail

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