Speaking to delegates at the annual conference of the Royal College of GPs in Liverpool, Prof Whitty said: “In terms of where Covid will go over the winter, well I think the winter as a whole, I regret to say, is going to be exceptionally difficult for the NHS. “That is, irrespective of whether we have a relatively low but non-trivial amount of Covid, or whether we actually have a further surge in the winter.”
Prof Whitty, who was speaking a day after the UK recorded 42,776 new infections – a three month high and seven per cent increase compared with last week – added: “I think if you asked 100 modellers you’re going to get over 100 answers, exactly as to how this is going to go out.
“I think what we’re confident of is the very top end, what we would have faced potentially had things gone wrong last winter is not going to happen, barring an extraordinary escape mutant variant, but let’s assume we don’t get something which actually can basically evade our defences completely, I think the top end risks are much lower.
“But we could certainly go up, we’re only two to three doubling times away from a really quite serious pressure on the NHS and it’s already serious, but one that actually will be very difficult to deal with.
“So the margin of error is quite small.”
He warned of tough months ahead for the health service as it battles COVID-19, flu, other viruses and the usual winter problems such as trips and falls.
However, he praised GPs – who are currently under fire over face-to-face appointments – for all their “outstanding” hard work and professionalism over the last two years.
Regarding flu, he said there was a lot of debate over whether there could be low levels as people are still not mixing as much, or whether a lack of natural immunity could lead to “a really serious spike”, with the possibility the flu vaccine is not very well matched to the strain that affects the UK.
The expert said that when other viruses and winter health issues are added into the mix, together with people seeking care that was delayed during the pandemic, the NHS was facing “an extraordinarily tall order”.
He added: “I wish I could claim that the sunlit uplands and it’ll be fantastic by Christmas, but sadly, I’m afraid that is not the case.”
On the issue of lessons learned, Prof Whitty said the last big pandemic was HIV and “if you try to manage HIV like you manage Covid, clearly it will be disastrous and the other way around.
“So I think what we should never do is assume that just because we’ve learnt a lot of lessons from one pandemic, they will necessarily translate into the next one.
“And the last big outbreak I dealt with was Ebola, that was primarily a touch disease, again a completely different set of ways you deal with it.”
(More to follow)