A look at what happened last year. One thing that didn’t happen was the end of the pandemic.
Despite people telling you it’s just like flu, Covid had far greater impact on illness, hospitals and deaths than flu. Up to December 2021, it was very rare that more than 2% of population had Covid at any one time. 2022 blew that out of the water. For 38 out of 52 weeks, Covid prevalence was higher than 2%. We had five distinct waves – and three waves where more than 1 in 20 were infected at the peak.
Up to 2022, it was children who had highest infection rates in every wave, especially those in secondary school in autumn 2021 (remember the late vaccination rollout?). The first half of 2022 saw mass infections in primary school children (the 5-11 vaccination rollout was also late). But in October and December 2022, the waves were driven by adults.
‘So what?’ you might say. What do infections matter in the age of vaccination? Vaccination made a massive difference, but the sheer millions of infections (and reinfections) meant many severe outcomes.
Since 2021, NHS England has collected data on people admitted to hospital, primarily for Covid. In 2021 it was around 75%. In 2022, with Omicron (together with vaccinations and previous infection) it was only 35%. Even so, 2022 saw around 135,000 admissions because of Covid. This figure dwarfed the number of admissions from flu. This is because five waves versus one wave in a year matters.
It’s not just the hospitalisations, spread out over five waves last year. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recorded 33,000 deaths involving Covid in 2022. That’s a little under half of 2021 number. That represents a big reduction thanks to vaccinations but, nonetheless, tens of thousands died. The one positive is that deaths reduced as the booster programme was rolled out.
How does Covid compare to flu? Deaths involving either flu or pneumonia were much higher in 2022 (86,500) than those involving Covid (33,000). But most of these were pneumonia rather than flu (there was not much flu until November 2022). Plus most flu/pneumonia deaths were not directly due to the flu/pneumonia, unlike Covid. Only 25% of deaths involving flu/pneumonia are directly due to flu/pneumonia. For Covid, the percentage is 66%.
Of course it’s not just about acute illness. The sheer number of infections also resulted in hundreds of thousands developing long covid – with symptoms lasting at least 12 weeks. Currently there are almost two million people with Long Covid in England. At least 650,000 of them developed it in 2022.
So what did we do in 2022 to mitigate the spread and impact of coronavirus?
In 2021 we rolled out a mass vaccination effort. In 2022 we did a small spring booster and larger autumn booster campaign. It was much smaller vaccination programme than in 2021, with very little for children and nothing for adults under 50.
This means we enter 2023 with children very undervaccinated at all, and most adults under 50 with their last dose a year ago. The booster uptake in 50-60 year-olds was disappointing. Even the over 60s are now over 3 months out from last dose.
What about other mitigations?
Nothing. Instead we removed them. Self-isolation stopped, free tests stopped, masks stopped. There’s been minimal progress on cleaner indoor air, and access to antivirals, prophylactics and vaccines is restricted.
So 2022 was a year when the virus ran free with five waves, over 135,000 hospital admissions, 33,000 deaths and over 650,000 new people with Long Covid. It’s hardly the end of the pandemic. This has certainly contributed to the NHS crisis, as well as people leaving employment, leading to a record number of job vacancies.
We enter 2023 with a complex population immunity profile and a fast-evolving virus. Watch the latest Independent Sage (IS) for immunity discussion.
It would be nice to think we had a strategy for reducing transmission in 2023, particular one aimed at mitigating the airborne spread of Coronavirus and other viruses. Next week the IS panel will discuss airborne transmission and how we can get to cleaner indoor air.