A new Covid variant could be worse than Omicron, Professor Sir Chris Whitty warns

Rates of Covid-19 are “high and rising” in England, the nation’s chief medical officer has said, as he warned of increases in hospital admissions over the next fortnight. Professor Sir Chris Whitty said the virus was causing pressure in the NHS but that high rates of transmission were fortunately not translating into intensive care (ICU) cases and deaths.

Meanwhile, he said people should not expect an “end point” to Covid-19. Prof Whitty said the virus will steadily become “less dominant” and likely become a seasonal disease.

He said people should expect significant problems in “all parts of the world for the rest of our lives”. Prof Whitty also said school closures due to the pandemic were likely to have caused “substantial” issues for some children.

Read more: Dr Hilary Jones gives Covid warning on ITV Good Morning Britain

Chief Medical Officer, Sir Chris Whitty addresses the nation during a press conference on plan for "Living With Covid'" at Downing Street Briefing Room on February 21, 2022 in London, England.
Chief Medical Officer, Sir Chris Whitty addresses the nation during a press conference on plan for “Living With Covid'” at Downing Street Briefing Room on February 21, 2022 in London, England.

And he has stated that the UK would likely be hit by seasonal waves of Covid for the next ‘two or three years’. That will be ‘interspersed’ by new variants of varying seriousness.

He said: “There’s a high chance that we will all be discussing and I will be discussing with my colleagues, a new variant at some point in the next two years that actually significantly changes our balance of risk. We could well end up with a new variant that produces worse problems than we’ve got with Omicron and the Omicron problems are by no means trivial”.

Addressing the Local Government Association and Association of Directors of Public Health’s annual public health conference, Prof Whitty said: “Covid cases are rising quite rapidly from a quite a high base and this is driven by a number of different factors of which BA.2 – the new Omicron variant – is a large part of it.

“I think it’s important firstly to acknowledge that rates are high and rising in virtually all parts of England. This is not translating into the very significant surges in all cause excess mortality, so we are still running at quite low rates in terms of mortality.

“Of course, that doesn’t mean that that is having no impact at all from it – if we look at hospitalisations, there are now quite significant numbers of people in hospital and they are now rising again, and I think will continue to rise for at least the next two weeks. So, there is pressure on the NHS and fortunately this is not translating into cases in ICU, it’s not at the moment translating into significant impact on excess deaths.”

Asked whether the virus had become endemic, he added: “The pandemic is going to become steadily less dominant over time, but we’re going to have a significant problem with it in multiple parts of the world, in all parts of the world in fact, for the rest of our lives. So, let’s have no illusions about that.

“I’m expecting it to probably be seasonal in the UK but interspersed – for the next two or three years – by new variants whilst it’s still evolving to adapt to humans, which may occur in between seasonal peaks. So, I think we should just accept that is what we’re going to deal with and just roll with it rather than expect there is some end point.”

He also warned about the long-term impact of the virus, including the effect of school closures and long Covid. Sir Chris said: “The impact of disrupted schooling on some children is going to be very substantial.

“For example, it does look as if there’s been some impact on some children and young people having eating disorders. So, I think there are a lot of ways this is going to have an impact on mental health.”

He said that he was “worried” about long Covid, adding: “There are a lot of people who have chronic symptoms as a result of Covid. Fortunately, with a majority of them, it’s not life limiting but it is significantly problematic.

“For some of them it is very substantially life limiting and appears to be long term. We’re still in the foothills of actually understanding what it is.”