vaccine nurse
© AFP / Dimitar DILKOFF
Two-thirds of new Covid hospital patients in England were actually admitted for a different ailment, MailOnline's analysis of NHS data suggests - as a growing number of studies show Omicron is much milder than Delta.

In the two weeks to December 21, hospitals in England recorded 563 new coronavirus inpatients โ€” the majority of which are believed to be Omicron now that the variant is the country's dominant stain.

But just 197 (35 per cent) were being primarily treated for Covid, with the remaining 366 (65 per cent) only testing positive after being admitted for something else.

Experts told MailOnline it was important to distinguish between admissions primarily for Covid so that rising numbers do not spook ministers into more social restrictions or scare the public from going to hospital.

England's incidental hospital cases are being driven by London, which has become the UK's Omicron hotspot and where admissions have been rising sharply.

Just over four in 10 new Omicron hospital patients in London were admitted for a different ailment, MailOnline's analysis suggests.
There were 523 more 'Covid admissions' resulting in an overnight stay in the two weeks to December 21, after Omicron became dominant in the capital earlier this month.

Admission rates for Covid in the capital are one factor ministers are keeping an eye on before potentially pulling the trigger on more curbs because London is considered to be a few weeks ahead of the rest of the country in its Omicron outbreak.

Officials are reported to be considering a national two-week 'circuit breaker' lockdown after Christmas if London's daily admissions breach 400 this week โ€” which would signal 'unsustainable' pressure on the NHS.

The latest data show this figure is currently just shy of this threshold, at 301 patients on Monday.

The rising number of so-called 'incidental cases' - people who are only diagnosed with the virus after going to the NHS for a different ailment - is in line with the picture in South Africa. Studies in the epicentre Gauteng province have shown up to three-quarters of Omicron patients there were not admitted primarily for the virus.

It comes as officials warn the NHS faces its busiest ever Christmas, with bed occupancy already at 94.5 per cent up on last year - and 2,800 people a day are having to wait over half an hour in ambulances, as an increasing number of health staff go on sick leave.

With so much stock being placed on numbers of Covid patients, there have been growing calls for the Government to distinguish between people admitted to hospital who happen to have Covid and those admitted because of Covid- to get a clearer picture of the demands the virus itself is putting on the health service.

Comment: Finally!

Dr Raghib Ali, a Cambridge University clinical epidemiologist, said:
'If you've got very high prevalence of Omicron in the community then there is a higher chance anyone who comes to hospital for any reason, even people with broken legs, will have Covid.

'It's just feature of having so much Omicron in the community. It is essential to distinguish between admissions that are primarily for Covid and those that are not.

'It's not only helpful but in many ways essential to know the primary diagnosis and to know how many daily admissions there are for every condition โ€” that would give us an indication of the true pressure on the NHS.'
Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, an eminent statistician at Cambridge University, told MailOnline: 'It looks like there is an increasing number of people being admitted to hospital who turn out to have Covid, presumably the Omicron variant.

'This is perhaps inevitable with a fast-spreading variant in which the majority do not experience symptoms.

'But it means there is an extra burden on the hospitals in caring for infected patients.'

Covid-infected people put strain on hospitals because they need to be isolated, and, depending on a variety of risk factors, for example if the patient is elderly and/or frail, Covid can exacerbate health problems and later become the primary reason they remain in hospital.

And NHS officials have increasingly warned the health service is coming under increasing pressure due to Omicron, despite there being fewer Covid patients in hospital now than at the start of November.

Comment: Keep the fear pumping.

According to NHS England data, there were 6,245 Covid patients needing hospital care on December 21. On November 1, almost four weeks before the first Omicron cases was found in the UK, this figure was 7,301.

Chief executive of NHS Providers Chris Hopson told BBC Radio 4's Today programme said overall bed occupancy, meaning not just Covid, rates are 5 per cent higher than last year, when the country was being ravaged by the Alpha variant.

'If you look at the broader picture, we are busier at this time of year than we've ever been before,' he said.

'Our bed occupancy rate is 94.5 per cent compared to last year's 89 per cent. That's a huge difference in terms of much more busy.'

Mr Hopson said around 2,800 people are having to wait more than half an hour in the back of ambulances before being admitted to hospital every day, with staff shortages worsening the strain.

'I was talking to the chief executive of London Ambulance Service yesterday who was telling me 12 per cent of his staff are currently on sick leave,' he added.

'What you can see is in places where Omicron in particular is spreading though the community you're finding significant numbers of staff are off.'

It wasn't all doom and gloom from Mr Hopson however as he added that the NHS is preparing to expand care capacity in case of a 'surge' but also said the health service should be able to manage.

'What we're trying to do is at the moment is just what we always do in the NHS, which is to prioritise care based on medical need," he said.

'We will and we are identifying places that would be needed if we really really needed to surge.'

Mr Hopson added that the NHS had handled around 40,000 simultaneous Covid hospital cases last January and would be capable of handling the current uptick in admissions, which stands at around 7,000 nationally.

'We can do this, but the issue is, we're in incredible pressure right the way across the health system,' he said.

News of NHS pressures comes along with calls for the Government to clarify its tipping point for imposing further pandemic restrictions, as new figures show the number of NHS staff absent for Covid reasons at acute trusts in London more than doubled last week.

Across England as a whole, 18,829 NHS staff at acute hospital trusts were absent due to Covid on December 19, up 54 per cent from 12,240 a week earlier and up 51 per cent from 12,508 at the start of the month, according to the data from NHS England.

In London, a total of 3,874 NHS staff at acute trusts were absent for Covid reasons on December 19, more than double the number a week earlier (1,540) and more than three times the number at the start of the month (1,174).

The total includes staff who were ill with Covid or who were having to self-isolate due to being in close contact with someone, such as a family member, who has tested positive.

The figures comes as Boris Johnson faces calls to outline his post-Christmas Covid strategy for England as Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland have already announced new restrictions to tackle the Omicron variant. Labour called for 'more clarity' from the Government on its plans - with Lucy Powell, shadow secretary of state for digital, culture, media and sport, claiming Mr Johnson is unable to make calls on Covid data because he has 'lost authority with the public'.

Ms Powell told Sky News there is a 'feeling' that 'the Prime Minister is not actually able to take those decisions based very clearly on data because he's got his own political problems, and he's lost authority with the public in order to convey some of those messages'.

She said: 'I think what we would like to see ... is more clarity around what data points the Government is looking at, where the thresholds lie within those areas that are data points, and if those thresholds are crossed, what action would then follow, or what action wouldn't follow if the data comes back in a more positive way, as it has done this morning.

'What are the sort of set of restrictions that may or may not come in depending on those data points? Because at the moment, I think a lot of people just feel like they're really stabbing in the dark.

'If you're running a nightclub, can you stock up for New Year? If (you've) got Christmas concerts on or you're operating a theatre, if you've got some travel plans, if you've got friends and families coming to stay after Christmas - what is it people can expect based on what information?

'We're all a little bit in the dark about that.'

Earlier today, the economy minister for Wales's Labour Government said he did not think England's position on Covid restrictions would remain the same 'for very much longer'.

Vaughan Gething told Times Radio: 'We've doubled our package because we know that there is a direct impact from the alert level two style interventions we've had to introduce to protect the public.

'I've met regularly with Dave Chapman (UKHospitality's executive director for Wales) and other stakeholders over the last few days making clear the seriousness of the position we're at ... we're actually being a bit more generous than the money that's on offer in England.

'Of course, Dave's talking about England continuing to be open. Well, I'm not sure that's going to be the position for very much longer.'

Mr Gething also said he thought England was 'out of step' with the other three UK nations on its Covid response.

Asked about plans in Wales to curb the spread of the virus, he told Times Radio: 'Scotland and Northern Ireland have taken relatively similar measures yesterday - it's England that's out of step with the other three nations.

'We've done this because of the clear public health advice we've got and because we are already starting to see a rise in cases.'

He added: 'We are a little more cautious certainly than England is - but that's because we think it's the right call.'

It also emerged today that people who catch the Omicron variant of Covid may be less likely to end up in hospital amid rising case rates and new restrictions across the UK nations. Two new studies suggested catching Omicron was less likely to result in severe symptoms and hospital admission than earlier Covid strains like Delta.

However, Professor Neil Ferguson, from the Imperial College London team behind one of the studies, warned Omicron's severity may be offset by the 'reduced efficacy' of vaccines to stop it being transmitted.

Recorded case rates of Covid across the UK rose above 100,000 on Wednesday for the first time since the start of the pandemic.

Ministers have stressed the Government keeping new Covid data in constant review, with health minister Gillian Keegan saying yesterday: 'There is uncertainty. We can't predict what the data is going to tell us before we've got the data.'