Statistics showing more young people hospitalised with Covid are not what they seem

Ambulances outside the Royal London Hospital - Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Ambulances outside the Royal London Hospital - Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
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On Thursday, Amanda Pritchard, the new NHS chief executive, claimed that a fifth of Covid hospital cases in England were young people.

Ms Pritchard told the BBC about 1,000 young adults were "really unwell" in hospital, adding that the number being admitted was four times higher than at the peak last winter.

NHS England clarified by saying that patients aged 18 to 34 made up more than 20 per cent of those admitted to hospital last month, up from around one in 20 – 5.4 per cent – at the January high point.

However, it is still clear that the statistics are not quite what they seem.

Earlier this week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) published a comparison of hospital admissions by age, based on peak levels on January 17.

It shows that in 15 to 24-year-olds, the admission rate throughout July ranged between 55 per cent and 105 per cent of the January peak. For 25 to 44s, it swung between 26 and 62 per cent.

So in terms of actual numbers, young people are currently being admitted to hospital at about the same level – or lower – than during the winter high point.

What is different this time is that the number of older people being admitted to hospital has collapsed thanks to the vaccination rollout, and that has consequently bumped up the percentage of younger people.

The ONS data show that the percentage of admissions in the 65 to 74 age range is now just 12 per cent of the winter peak. For 75s to 84s, it is 10 per cent, while those 85 and over are being admitted at just eight per cent of the previous high.

So it is entirely unsurprising that younger people are making up the bulk of hospital admissions. In fact, the latest data from Public Health England (PHE) suggest that about 68 per cent of all hospital admissions in the delta variant wave are in the under-50s age group.

Ms Pritchard also said there were 5,000 people "seriously ill" with Covid, presumably referring to the number currently in hospital. There are now 5,896 people in hospital with the virus – just 15 per cent of the 39,254 at the peak of the January wave.

However, it is unlikely that they are all seriously ill. The latest figures from the Intensive Care National Audit Officers show that fewer than 1,000 people are in intensive care with Covid, and there are good data from the Covid Clinical Information Network showing that patients in this wave are needing less time in hospital.

In the January peak, fewer than half of patients had been discharged after 10 days. Now, 50 per cent of patients have been sent home by day four, with only one in five still needing hospital care by day 10.

This can also be seen in the death figures. Nate Silver, the eminent US statistician, estimates that Britain's case fatality rate is now around 0.2 to 0.3 per cent, compared to two per cent during the alpha or Kent variant wave.

"That's what happens when you vaccinate a very large percentage of your elderly population, as the UK has," said Mr Silver.

Ms Pritchard was making the point to encourage more people to get jabbed. Her comments came after it was announced on Wednesday that 16 and 17-year-olds will now be offered the Pfizer vaccine.

Young people have been more hesitant than older groups in vaccine uptake, with the Government threatening to bring in vaccine passports for attending nightclubs and other potential "super-spreader" events in September.

"The best way they can absolutely protect themselves is to get that vaccine if they haven't already," said Ms Pritchard.

Undoubtedly this is true – but it is worth bearing in mind that the chance of young people being admitted to hospital after catching Covid is very small. Data from PHE show that, for the under-50s, just 0.7 per cent of infections will result in an overnight hospital stay.

In contrast, for the over 50s it is 2.9 per cent – proving that Covid is still a more serious problem for older people, even with the vaccination rollout.

A more useful figure for persuading young people to have the jab might have been the percentage entering hospital unvaccinated. PHE figures show that just 6.7 per cent of hospitalised under-50s were double jabbed, whereas the unvaccinated made up 72 per cent of admissions.

Likewise, according to PHE, just four people who received two doses in the under-50s category have died in the delta wave, compared to 34 in the unvaccinated group.

So the real truth is that the risk from Covid for young people is very small, but they can lower it even further by accepting the offer of a jab. Doing so may bring wider benefits to both themselves and society.

While protecting others should never be a reason for vaccination, it is worth bearing in mind that many youngsters are anxious about passing the disease to older family members and fear more disruption to their education if a new virus wave were to emerge.

Lockdowns, school closures and bubbles have had a devastating impact on the mental health of youngsters, but could be avoided entirely if we reach herd immunity.

So the advantages of vaccination for youngsters go well beyond the physical health gains. We need to be less squeamish about saying so rather than massaging the numbers needlessly.