Hospitals are reporting high numbers of “incidental Covid” patients who are admitted for unrelated reasons, an NHS chief has said, warning hospitalisation data should be treated with caution.
Chris Hopson, the NHS Providers chief executive, stressed that Covid figures do not distinguish between those hospitalised because of the virus and other patients who test positive asymptomatically after arrival.
He cautioned against misinterpreting the 27 per cent rise in coronavirus hospital admissions nationally over the past week and the 45 per cent hike in London.
The number of people in hospital with coronavirus in England is less than half what it was this time last year, despite three times as many infections amid the omicron variant surge.
Official figures in recent weeks have suggested that up to one in three Covid patients may have caught the illness in hospital.
After the Government’s analysis found omicron to be less severe, Boris Johnson yesterday rejected calls for more restrictions ahead of New Year’s Eve from pro-lockdown scientists and Sage, the Government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies.
Mr Hopson told BBC Breakfast: “The bit that we need to wrap our heads around, which is an important piece of nuance, is that quite a few of our chief executives are talking about people who are coming into hospital with Covid, as opposed to because of Covid.”
He explained that in previous hospital admission peaks, seriously ill older people required extra oxygen and intensive care to battle Covid respiratory issues.
But Mr Hopson added: “The difference this time is that we’ve got quite a few patients who are coming in, they might have fallen off their bike and knocked their head, or broken their leg.
“What’s happening is they’ve got no symptoms but when they arrive they’re testing positive for Covid. Interestingly the statistics that we use don’t actually distinguish between those two.
Patients in hospital – England
“So, for example, I was talking to a chief executive yesterday who was saying that although they’ve had a 30 per cent increase in the number of Covid patients over the last week, actually the total number of admitted patients is around the same.
“She was explaining this difference that in previous waves patients were being admitted because of Covid as opposed to people who were testing positive incidentally and interestingly weren’t displaying symptoms.
“So we just need to be careful about over-interpreting the data.”
Prof Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, backed the Government’s decision not to impose new Covid restrictions in England before 2022.
"The horrific scenes that we saw a year ago – intensive care units being full, lots of people dying prematurely – that is now history in my view and I think we should [be] reassured that that’s likely to continue," he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
He said the public had been “pretty responsible” and added: "The health minister has taken advice and looked at the data. I think his judgement [of] where we should go in the next few days is probably fine.”
Covid patient numbers in hospitals and ICUs have remained stable since November
There were 7,536 patients in hospital with Covid on December 26, compared to 18,350 on the same day last year, despite triple the number of infections.
The admissions figure has risen slightly after falling in recent weeks, and is now at around the same level as on November 1 (7,535).
Mr Hopson warned the effect of inter-generational mixing over Christmas was yet to be reflected in Covid figures, but that NHS trusts were not reporting large numbers of Covid patients needing critical care at present. More "incidental" Covid admissions will emerge as the community infection rate rises, he added.
It came as the Prime Minister gave New Year’s Eve parties the green light – along with a dose of caution around testing and ventilation – after deciding the latest Covid data did not merit going beyond England’s current plan B restrictions.
While the devolved nations have imposed tougher curbs, 75 per cent of eligible adults have received a booster jab.