Coronavirus could become a “much more treatable disease” in the next six to 18 months, the head of the NHS in England has told MPs.
Appearing in front of the Health and Social Care Select Committee, Sir Simon Stevens said he hoped more treatments for COVID-19 would emerge in the future.
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Coupled with the continued vaccines rollout, the NHS England chief executive said this offers the hope of a return to a “much more normal future”.
“The first half of the year, vaccination is going to be crucial,” Sir Simon said.
“I think a lot of us in the health service are increasingly hopeful that the second half of the year and beyond we will also see more therapeutics and more treatments for coronavirus.”
He told MPs there were a number of potential new treatments on the horizon.
“I think it is possible that over the course of the next six to 18 months, coronavirus becomes a much more treatable disease with antivirals and other therapies, which alongside the vaccination programme holds out the hope of a return to a much more normal future,” Sir Simon said.
He told the committee that more than half of people aged 75-79 have now been given their first vaccine doses.
“We are at the moment pretty much using up each week’s vaccine as we get it, as we receive it through the safety testing, the batch testing, distribution to the NHS, then it gets sent out across the country,” Sir Simon said.
He also said there will come a point where people are told they can come forward to get a vaccine if they have yet to receive one.
“As we move through each successive cohort there will come a moment when we will say: ‘If you haven’t been contacted then please come forward yourselves’,” Sir Simon said.
“Right now, because we have been asked to move down the risk pyramid, the NHS is asking people to book an appointment, so we’re saying: ‘Wait for us to contact you’, rather than: ‘You phone your surgery’, for example.
“But as we get to the end of each cohort we will then be saying very clearly: ‘If you fall into this category and you haven’t been vaccinated, here’s how you can come forward and be vaccinated’.”
Once the top four priority groups have been offered a vaccine, which is expected to be by the middle of February, teachers, police and people with learning disabilities will have to be considered for the next round of jabs,” Sir Simon revealed.
He explained: “Our current proposition that once we have offered a vaccination to everyone aged 70 and above, and the clinically extremely vulnerable, then the next group of people would be people in their 60s and 50s, but there will also be a legitimate discussion in my view that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation will have to advise on as to whether or not there are certain other groups who should receive that priority.
“People with learning disabilities and autism, certain key public service workers, teachers, the police, they will have to be factored in that post-February 15 prioritisation decision.”
Sir Simon said when it comes to deciding who to prioritise for a jab, reducing the number of people in hospital with the virus was not “the only consideration”.
“Fundamentally, the most important thing is to get the overall infection rate down, this is not principally about pressure on the NHS, this is principally about reducing the avoidable death rate,” he told MPs.
Sir Simon said there would be a “big impact” from vaccinating everyone aged 65 and over, but pointed out that a quarter of people admitted to hospital with COVID-19 were aged under 55, while around half of inpatient critical care bed days relate to coronavirus patients who are under 65.
Discussing the current pressures on the health service, he said: “Everybody is getting intensive care and ventilators who clinicians think would benefit, but let’s not disguise the fact that this is obviously stretching the system in an extreme way.”
Sir Simon added that just under 33,000 coronavirus patients were in hospitals across the country, a number he described as “very, very serious”.
“When you look at the critical care positions, again, we have got over 4,000 patients in critical care and about three-quarters of our critical care are there for COVID-related reasons,” he said.
Talking about the impact of the pandemic on other kinds of treatment, Sir Simon said he was “concerned” about cancer surgery.
He told the committee there was a “huge focus” to make sure that services for those needing urgent cancer surgery were maintained.
He added: “There’s particular pressure on anaesthetists at the moment, many of whom are being diverted to help the critical care surge for coronavirus patients.”