MP Jeremy Hunt: A January lockdown could still be avoided

By Jeremy Hunt   |   MP for South West Surrey   |
Friday 24th December 2021 7:00 am
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South West Surrey MP Jeremy Hunt

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AFTER last Christmas was called off, we all hoped this year would be different.

Alas, it was not (quite) to be.

All 11 Surrey boroughs are in the top 100 in the country for Covid cases. So let me start by repeating the government advice about mandatory wearing of face masks in shops and supermarkets and prioritising social contacts.

Most importantly, please do a lateral flow test on Christmas morning before you visit any older relatives.

After being triple boosted many of us may feel ‘invincible’ but we should remember Omicron can evade the vaccine so please do not take any risks.

What about the national situation? I remain cautiously optimistic that despite the hydra-like return of a new variant, the worst of the pandemic is behind us.

But there is no room for complacency and the risks to the NHS are real. We are now averaging more than 90,000 new cases a day, 70 per cent of which are thought to be Omicron.

The good news is that more than half of over-12s have not just been double jabbed but boosted as well with the most extensive booster programme in Europe.

Guildford, Waverley and Frimley have some of the highest vaccination rates in the whole country which is testament to a superb effort by our local NHS teams and volunteers.

Our overall immunity as a population is therefore dramatically higher than this time last year, although that is significantly undermined by five million people who remain unvaccinated.

The key metric to watch this time is hospital admissions, which could still cause the NHS to topple over.

With a more transmissible variant, some vaccine escape and so many unvaccinated, the risks are real.

If admissions start to rise beyond this January’s peak of around 4,000 a day, the NHS will struggle – not just for Covid cases but for all emergency care including heart attacks, strokes and urgent cancer treatment.

So far, however, there has not been a surge in admissions and the number of Covid hospital patients is well down on the same time last year.

But London is the Omicron epicentre – and there daily hospital admissions are up by 40 per cent. Current modelling suggests daily admissions will exceed 3,000 a day but not necessarily the crucial 4,000 limit.

If, as expected, many more NHS staff end up being off work with Covid in the next few weeks, that will lower the level at which the system is able to cope. More hospital admissions with fewer staff to treat them will make January very hairy indeed.

But we could still therefore avoid a lockdown if the numbers go our way, which is why sensible scientists like Professor Paul Hunter and Sir Jeremy Farrar, who have previously criticised the government, have said it was perfectly reasonable to defer making any decision until the picture becomes clearer.

I hope, as well as getting behind our brilliant front-line staff, we also use the new year to look at the longer-term solutions necessary to avoid this seemingly perpetual cycle of freedom and restrictions.

These should surely include a national programme of fourth jabs, as in Israel, a new generation of vaccines that cope with potential as well as known variants and vaccine equity so that poorer countries are able to get their populations jabbed as efficiently as we can.

This is a more sober end-of-year message than normal but I wish everyone a safe and merry Christmas.

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