UK COVID-19 Update: Vaccines Saved More Than 6000 Lives, Cases Plateau

Tim Locke

March 26, 2021

These are the UK coronavirus stories you need to know about today.

Vaccines Saved More Than 6000 Lives

Estimates by Public Health England (PHE) suggest the COVID-19 vaccination programme prevented 6100 deaths in over-70s by the end of February. Separate Warwick University modelling estimates vaccination prevented around 6600 deaths across all age groups.

Dr Mary Ramsay, PHE head of immunisation, said: "While the vaccines have a striking impact on mortality, we don’t yet know how much these vaccines will reduce the risk of you passing COVID-19 onto others."

Commenting via the Science Media Centre, Professor Sheila Bird, formerly programme leader, MRC Biostatistics Unit, University of Cambridge, said the paper was "light on detail. In particular, how the weighting of ‘vaccine impact’ changed over time because the mix of vaccine-types changed; and whether impact was differentiated by whether the second Pfizer/BioNTech dose was delivered on the 1/22 days randomised-trial schedule".

Meanwhile, NHS England data show 23.4% of eligible staff at care homes for older adults haven't yet had a first vaccine dose.

Strong Immune Response

Universities of Sheffield and Oxford PITCH preprint study found that 99% of 237 healthcare workers had a robust antibody and T cell response after one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

Those who'd previously had COVID-19 generated a stronger immune response.

Study author, Dr Thushan de Silva, University of Sheffield, said: "Our study is one of the largest and most comprehensive accounts of the immune response to one dose of Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine comparing previously infected and infection-naive individuals.

“Our results demonstrate that T cell and antibody responses induced by natural infection are boosted significantly by a single dose of vaccine. While the response to a single dose was lower in infection-naïve individuals, it was still equivalent or better than the immunity in previously infected individuals before it is boosted by vaccination."

Europe

The European Medicines Agency (EMA) will convene an ad hoc expert group to provide "additional input" into the assessment of thromboembolic events occurring in European Union (EU) residents who have received AstraZeneca's COVID-19 vaccine.

Meanwhile, the EU has told AstraZeneca to "catch up" on vaccine deliveries in Europe before exporting doses to other countries.

University of Stirling preprint research suggests the suspension of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine in many European countries did not impact on UK vaccination intentions. However, Dr David Comerford from the Behavioural Science Centre said: "This is not to say that the UK public were not concerned by the news. Google Trends data shows increasing search activity for the terms ‘vaccine’ and ‘safe’ as the AstraZeneca suspension story was unfolding, but that concern did not translate into mistrust of the vaccination programme in the UK."

Separate Office for National Statistics (ONS) data show positive sentiment towards vaccination remained high at 94%.

NHS Backlog

The BMA has responded to NHS England plans to tackle waiting lists caused by the pandemic.

"It’s promising to see the Government taking the NHS backlog seriously and recognising the immense amount of elective work yet to come for our health service," said BMA Consultants Committee Chair, Dr Rob Harwood.

He added: "We’re pleased that our concerns about staff welfare and the need for colleagues to recuperate while tackling the backlog have been listened to, but promises of taking action on recruitment and retention or letting staff have the period of rest they deserve, for example, must be fulfilled if we’re to see a difference on the front line – and there’s a lot of work to be done here."

Also commenting, President of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, Dr Katherine Henderson said: "After the challenges of the past year, which saw an increase in staff suffering from stress and wider psychological problems, the health and wellbeing of our staff is at the forefront of our minds, so it is absolutely right for this to be a top priority for 2021/22."

Meanwhile, BBC polling of 2000 BAME doctors found that 328 hadn't had a risk assessment, and 519 had been assessed but no action had been taken. NHS England ordered the risk assessments last June after evidence emerged of the additional COVID-19 risks for Black, Asian, and Ethnic Minority NHS frontline staff.

Cases Plateau

Latest Public Health England surveillance data show case rates have increased across those aged 5-19 but have fallen in all other age groups.

Medical Director, Dr Yvonne Doyle, said: "Case rates have plateaued in most parts of the country, and in younger age groups infections have begun to rise once again. We must not drop our guard now after so much effort by so many. We need only look to Europe to see how easy it is for things to take a turn for the worse."

NHS England Chief Executive Sir Simon Stevens has advised lowering the UK alert level from 4 to 3.

The Guardian reported that more than 40,600 people are likely to have become infected with COVID while being treated in hospital in England for another reason.

ONS

ONS released the latest weekly infection survey data.

"After several weeks of declining infections, today’s figures show the percentage of people testing positive remained broadly level in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, with the percentage of people testing positive increasing in Scotland," said Sarah Crofts from ONS.

In England 1 in 340 people had COVID-19, the figure for Wales was 1 in 450. In Scotland it was 1 in 240, and 1 in 320 in Northern Ireland.

The percentage of people testing positive with cases compatible with the UK variant are likely to have levelled off in England, with an uncertain trend in Wales and Northern Ireland. Cases in Scotland are likely to have increased.

Separate ONS data show 90% of respondents who were required to self-isolate 1 to 6 March after being in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 reported being fully adherent to self-isolation requirements for 10 days. 

The UK's R number has risen slightly to 0.7 to 0.9  Last week it was 0.6 to 0.9.

The growth rate is now -5% to -2% per day.

Rapid Test

The distributor of the 20-second Virolens COVID-19 saliva test said it had received MHRA approval.

The test has been trailed at Heathrow Airport and claims 98.1% sensitivity and 99.7% specificity.

Wales' Lockdown

The tourism industry starts to reopen in Wales from tomorrow as the 'stay local' rules are lifted. Other changes mean that up to six people from two different households can meet and exercise outdoors.

First Minister Mark Drakeford said: "These further relaxations are part of our careful and phased approach to unlocking the restrictions and enabling people and businesses to resume their activities in the safest possible way."

England's lockdown restrictions are due to be eased on Monday. Under the 'roadmap':

  • 'Rule of 6’ outdoor gatherings will be allowed

  • Outdoor sports facilities can reopen and organised outdoor sport resumes

  • The 'stay at home' rule ends but travel abroad is still banned

There are reports that lorry drivers entering the UK will soon need to take a COVID-19 test. A Government spokesperson said: "We are carefully monitoring the increase in cases in Europe and will keep all measures under review as we cautiously remove restrictions throughout our roadmap."

Improvements Needed

Blackpool Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has been told to make improvements in its urgent and emergency care department (UEC) and in medical care services at Blackpool Victoria Hospital.

The Care Quality Commission (CQC) made an unannounced, focused inspection in January.

CQC’s Ann Ford, said: "Whilst we recognise the pressures that the trust was under during the pandemic at the time we inspected, CQC has a responsibility to follow up on concerns that were received from staff and people using these services."

She added: "We also found there was not sufficient numbers of qualified, competent, and experienced medical staff in the medical care services. The trust must ensure that this is improved to keep patients safe from avoidable harm and to provide the right care and treatment they deserve."

The Trust's overall rating remains 'requires improvement'.

The inspection took place "in the eye of the second wave", commented trust Chief Executive, Kevin McGee.

"The services inspected were incredibly pressured, working in some of the most challenging circumstances we have ever experienced. I would like to thank all colleagues on duty who were able to support the CQC on top of everything else they were dealing with that day.

“The Trust will now action those areas of improvement identified as part of our overall CQC action plan and ambitious improvement plans for the entire organisation."

Poor Sleep

Only 7.7% of people are currently experiencing 'very good' quality sleep during lockdown, according to UCL's continuing COVID-19 Social Study. However, sleep quality has started to improve.

Lead author, Dr Elise Paul, said: "Our report shows that during the pandemic, many people have suffered from poor sleep quality. This could be due to a wide range of factors, such as disruption to routines and the changes in living circumstances that lockdown has caused. Stress is also likely to be a factor, especially as those from groups living in more stressful circumstances, such as people with lower household incomes and those with mental or physical health conditions, are reporting higher levels of poor quality sleep."

See more global coronavirus updates in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Centre.

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