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15 December 2021updated 21 Dec 2021 9:10am

Exclusive: NHS faces third wave of Omicron mid-January in London – at half the second wave’s impact

NHS executives have been briefed that the maximum number of Covid surge beds in London hospitals will be full by the beginning of January.

By Anoosh Chakelian

NHS executives have been briefed that the impact of a third Covid-19 wave driven by both the Delta and Omicron variants is likely to be felt in four to five weeks’ time, the New Statesman understands.

The NHS in London is planning for a possible peak around 13 January, though there is much uncertainty and the peak could arrive a week earlier.

While the magnitude and timing of the third wave remain unclear, NHS executives expect the maximum number of Covid surge beds in London hospitals will be full by the beginning of January. They are trying to free up additional beds by discharging patients where possible, but are not optimistic that that will provide much more capacity.

Instructions for surge planning were sent out to NHS trusts and providers in a letter dated 13 December from Amanda Pritchard, the chief executive of NHS England, and Stephen Powis, the chief executive of NHS improvement.

The New Statesman hears that NHS executives in the capital have been briefed to expect the peak to have roughly half the impact on care that the second wave did in early January 2021.

At the height of the second wave, there was a seven-day average of nearly 60,000 confirmed cases and more than 1,200 deaths each day. The number of people hospitalised with Covid-19 peaked at 39,254 on 18 January, and deaths reached 8,739 in the seven days leading up to 23 January.

General NHS activity is higher at present than it was in advance of the second wave, so insiders fear that even a wave with half the impact would add considerable pressure on top of the health service’s wider challenges.

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Omicron is expected to be the dominant variant in less than two weeks, and two weeks after that its specific impact will be clearer. More than 44 per cent of cases in London are from Omicron (compared with 20 per cent of cases in England), and the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, warned on 13 December that it was only 48 hours from being the dominant strain in the capital.

The NHS in London is planning for a third Covid-19 wave driven by both Delta and Omicron, with both variants currently rising. The difference of severity between the two is not yet clear.

NHS England did not comment on these specific details, but did direct the New Statesman towards two letters outlining plans for England.

The first letter, published on 13 December, declared a “Level 4 National Incident” and instructed providers to ramp up vaccination and Covid-19 treatment plans, to maximise the number of patients they can discharge safely, and prepare surge plans, among other measures.

The second, published on the same date, gave details of the booster drive following Boris Johnson’s announcement on 12 December of the government’s target to invite all adults for their third jab by the end of the year.

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