When Omicron started to surge just before Christmas, it felt like Covid groundhog day. Yet a more optimistic picture seems to be emerging in the new year. Confidence is growing that we will avoid any further restrictions, and there are tentative signs that we can feel hopeful about the trajectory of the virus in 2022.

Britain’s Omicron peak may have passed

The number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in England over the past week is 13% down on the previous week, and even hospital admissions are starting to fall.

Gloomy modelling before Christmas suggested hospital admissions this winter could exceed last January’s peak. And worst case scenarios predicted hospitalisations could end up three times as high as they are now. 

In fact, 1,862 hospital admissions were reported on Monday in England, about half the level of last January’s peak. Even more reassuring, given the roughly 10-day lag between infection and resulting hospitalisation, hospitalisations have essentially plateaued at a time when infections were still rising. 

London, which was hit first by Omicron, is seeing the clearest downward trend. Daily admissions are now down 20 per cent from their peak on New Year’s Eve. 

Excluding the north-east of England and Yorkshire where hospitalisations are still rising, a flattening trend is emerging in other regions across England too. In the east of England, daily admissions are averaging 178, down from 182 on 5 January, while in the southwest is averaging 137 admissions, down from 142 on 3 January.

Britain is well on its way to making the transition from pandemic to epidemic 

According to Professor David Heymann of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, Britain “is the closest to any country of being out of the pandemic — if it isn’t already out of the pandemic,” thanks to its high levels of population immunity. 

The coronavirus is rapidly running out of virgin immune systems. With more than 95 per cent of people containing antibodies, Heymann says that the virus is “now functioning more like an endemic coronavirus than one that is a pandemic”.

What’s more, “the laws of biochemistry mean the virus cannot improve indefinitely,” writes Ben Krishna, a post-doctoral researcher in immunology and virology at University Cambridge. 

Covid-19 will continue to mutate but it will eventually evolve to peak performance in terms of spreading ability. Thereafter, “this maxed-out virus will then simply mutate randomly,” predicts Krishna. This is something akin to what we already see happening with influenza mutations. Each year, a slightly different flu virus emerges but it is not necessarily more virulent – or transmissible – than it was the year before. 

Others predict that, with a relatively new virus like Covid-19, each time it does surge it will likely be, on average, a little milder, as with each exposure we gain more ways to fight off infection. 

Further lockdowns may well be avoided
The Wellcome Trust, Britain’s biggest independent funder of medical research, has called for coronavirus to be “treated like the common cold.”

If we’re heading towards a situation where the virus is endemic, and variants become milder, even if more transmissible, it calls into question the rationale behind a “Zero Covid” approach. 

“Particularly with Omicron, Zero Covid is not a realistic aspiration,” says Nick Moakes, the Wellcome Trust’s chief investment officer. 

We cannot keep returning to regular lockdowns, he says. “It is just not economically viable. We don’t do that for the flu and we don’t do that for the common cold.”

Now, for the Wellcome, he adds, the big priority is to increase global vaccination, so that more countries can find themselves in a similar position to that of the UK.