Covid: Rise of 'Kraken' variant and pressure on NHS mean we should be wearing masks again – Dr Gwenetta Curry

The winter crisis has hit the UK particularly hard this year. The combination of Covid, flu, and strep-A have burdened NHS services and continue to wreak havoc on the primary care services available to ill citizens across the country.

With the announcement that excess deaths in 2022 were the worst in 50 years, many are wondering what caused this to happen. More than 650,000 deaths were registered in the UK in 2022, more than nine per cent higher than in 2019, pre-pandemic. Covid was involved in 38,000 deaths in 2022, compared to 95,000 in 2020.

While some have turned a blind eye to the threat the virus still poses, it is important to remain vigilant as new variants continue to show up. Scientists have warned about the risk of mutations causing increased spread and the risk of immunity evasion.

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The XBB.1.5 variant, dubbed the “Kraken” by some scientists, is the most transmissible variant to date. Across the US, cases increased rapidly over the holiday period. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated the number of Covid cases caused by the XBB1.5 rose from two per cent in early December to 28 per cent nationally and upward of 70 per cent in the northeastern US by January 6. Although the cases have increased, it’s unclear if the new variant has caused a surge in hospitalisations.

In Scotland, the Office for National Statistics estimated that one in every 25 people had Covid in the last week of December, and this week there were more than 1,200 patients with the disease in hospitals – double the number just four weeks ago.

It is unclear how many cases of XBB.1.5 are circulating throughout the UK. Although the test sample was small, data from the Sanger Institute in Cambridge during early December indicated that one in 25 Covid cases were triggered by the new variant. It will be important to follow the numbers closely to have a full picture of its impact. The World Health Organization said there was no indication so far that it was more serious or harmful than the previous Omicron variants.

Earlier this week First Minister Nicola Sturgeon encouraged anyone with symptoms of respiratory infection to stay at home, if possible, and wear a face covering if they need to go out. While we are not implementing all the previous Covid mitigation steps, the wearing of face masks on public transport and in public spaces such as hospitals, GP surgeries, and other healthcare facilities is still urged.

A&E waiting times remain a constant issue across the UK and previous studies indicate the mortality rate increases after a five-hour wait. Public Health Scotland has reported that more than 2,500 people waited over half a day to be seen in A&E during the last week of December. To relieve some of the pressures on the health and social care system, the government has increased funding support for additional care home beds for patients and extended GP opening hours to Saturdays. With hospitals at 95 per cent capacity, everyone needs to do what they can to reduce their risk of having to attend A&E. So get your flu and Covid vaccines and wear a mask in public places.

Wearing a Covid face mask in public places is once again a good idea (Picture: Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

Dr Gwenetta Curry is an Edinburgh University lecturer on race, ethnicity and health

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