Covid-19 could become a “much more treatable disease” in the next six to 18 months, the head of the NHS has said.
Sir Simon Stevens told MPs that he hoped more treatments would emerge in the future, which, coupled with vaccination, would see a turn for the better.
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Sir Simon spoke of the prospect of a “much more normal future” thanks to the development of potential new treatments in the works, but said that vaccination is going to be “crucial” in the first half of this year.
Speaking to the Health and Social Care Committee, he said: “The first half of the year, vaccination is going to be crucial.
“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 spoke of the possibility of combining the Covid vaccine and flu vaccine into a single jab, if not for next winter then for future ones, and added that a number of potential new treatments are in the pipeline, raising hopes for a return to normality.
He added: “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.”
Deciding the priority list
Sir Simon said that the Covid-19 vaccines are being used as fast as they arrive in the NHS, and more than half of people aged between 75 and 79 have now been given their first dose.
Asked about vaccine priority, he said that teachers, police and people with learning disabilities will need to be considered for the next round of vaccinations, and suggested that this should happen perhaps as early as February.
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 that reducing the number of hospital beds occupied by Covid-19 patients was not “the only consideration” policymakers would take into account when deciding the vaccination priority list.
While vaccinating everyone aged 65 and over will have a “big impact” on the pressure on hospital beds, around a quarter of hospital admissions for Covid are for people aged under 55, and about half of inpatient critical care beds relate to patients under the age of 65.
However, the priority still remains on vaccinating the most vulnerable first before other groups are addressed, but Sir Simon said there will eventually come a point where people are told they can come for a vaccination if they have not yet received one.
He explained: “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.’
“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.'”