It is unfair to “bash the UK” over high numbers of Covid cases and compare it with the rest of Europe when the UK has such high levels of testing, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group has told MPs.
Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, who helped create the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, said there were reasons the UK was seeing a high number of confirmed cases, which have been averaging more than 40,000 a day for over a week.
He said it was true the UK had high case rates but this is “very much related to the amount of testing”, including in schools.
Sir Andrew told the Commons Science and Technology Committee: “If you look across Western Europe, we have about 10 times more tests done each day than some other countries, this is per head of population.“So we really have to always adjust by looking at the data… we do have a lot of transmission at the moment, but it’s not right to say that those rates are really telling us something that we can compare internationally.”
He suggested the UK Government should look to do what was right for the British people rather than comparing internationally.
“A lot of our policy decisions should be very much focused on what we think is right for this country, not by saying other countries have much less (cases), because it’s very difficult to make those assessments,” the professor said.
“If you make the adjustment of cases in relation to the rates of testing, and look at test positivity, currently Germany has the highest test positivity rate in Europe.
“So I think when we look at these data it’s really important not to sort of bash the UK with a very high case rate, because actually it’s partly related to very high testing.
“I’m not trying to deny that there’s not plenty of transmission, because there is, but it’s the comparisons that are problematic.”
Sir Andrew said there was a need to look at hospital admissions and deaths more so than cases, adding that most intensive care cases were among the unvaccinated.
He said there were questions about booster doses and whether the vaccines are working against severe disease, but it remained the case that intensive care admissions could be cut by persuading the unvaccinated to take vaccines.
“Now you could argue that all the other measures, and having more people boosted, mask-wearing and so on will also have an impact, of course it will do on those unvaccinated individuals, so if we want to protect intensive care there are measures to do that (such as restrictions)… but also, we could be vaccinating those individuals, focusing on that, which would protect intensive care,” he said.
Sir Andrew said hospital admissions now were “quite a different story from last year”, with the vast majority of people now going in having shorter hospital stays and much milder disease.
Many of these people also have underlying health conditions “which are destabilised by having a relatively mild Covid infection”, he said.
Physicians see this every winter with other viruses, Sir Andrew said, adding “that people who are frail with various health conditions will be tipped over the edge as a result of those viral infections and Covid is doing that as well.”
He warned the NHS was “incredibly fragile” but “that fragility is only contributed a small amount by Covid and so vaccinating is not going to suddenly make the NHS not be on its knees, where it is at the moment”.
The eminent scientist said the pandemic has had a major impact on waiting lists and while vaccines for the unvaccinated would make a big difference for intensive care, “this still doesn’t change the overall needle on where we are with a very stressed NHS”.
Sir Andrew said ensuring less transmission would cut intensive care admissions “but in the end the unvaccinated will meet the virus… it just might not be today, it might be next year”.
Turning to the impact of testing in schools on high case numbers, he said: “I think when you look in the community, for example, we see these very high rates of transmission, but in some parts of the country the vast majority of those come from very effective testing in schools, and so we’re picking up a lot of very mild infections.
“We know from all the previous studies done that children contribute a relatively small amount to adult transmission, so those very high numbers in some regions… is reflecting something which is transmission amongst children – much less importance than transmission to older adults.”
Asked if people are looking at the “wrong thing” by focusing on cases, Sir Andrew said that even with deaths, they are recorded as being within 28 days of a positive Covid result. When transmission is high, lots of people will have died from other causes, he said.
He said the raw data was “quite misleading” though that “doesn’t mean there isn’t Covid transmission and people get hospitalised with it”.
Downing Street said it was “too early” to draw conclusions from the latest figures which suggest a potential levelling off of coronavirus cases.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “It’s always encouraging when you see reductions like that and including, I believe, a levelling off of admissions.
“But it’s too early to draw full conclusions from the case rates and we would continue to urge the public to abide by the guidance as set out and those eligible to get booster doses.
“Prevalence remains relatively high even if it has dropped off to a certain extent.
“There isn’t anything in the statistics currently to suggest a move to Plan B but it is too early to draw conclusions from the recent few days’ statistics which has shown drops in cases.”
Plan B could see mandatory facemasks indoors brought back, guidance to work form home and the use of Covid passports.