Is The UK Facing A Winter Covid Crisis?
Experts foresee a rise in Covid cases linked to the number of late summer festivals (Alamy)
The government’s gamble that it could ride the third wave of coronavirus over August despite removing all legal restrictions appears to have paid off.
However, it now faces accusations of wasting a second summer in a row to prevent a winter Covid crisis, with one Sage member telling PoliticsHome that a failure to establish more well-ventilated schools, universities and workplaces could “come home to roost” later in the year.
When Westminster shuttered for its summer break ministers in England put their faith in modelling showing by the time MPs came back to Parliament in September the peak of new coronavirus infections would be long past, and the NHS would not be overwhelmed.
They looked to Scotland, which caught the new spike in cases ahead of the rest of the United Kingdom, hoping the same dramatic fall in cases it experienced in July was mimicked in the rest of the four nations as more and more people become double jabbed.
But latest figures show while there was a prodigious fall in the virus at the start of August, they have been steadily climbing back up the rest of the month - while deaths from Covid-19 never fell away, and the seven-day average has been hovering above 100 for two weeks now.
Meanwhile north of the border, where pupils are already back in the classroom, cases are on the up too with Nicola Sturgeon under pressure to deliver a “circuit breaker” lockdown – something she says she is not currently considering – prompting questions on whether Boris Johnson’s administration will be forced to do the same.
There are more patients in hospital with Covid-19 now than this time last month, when infections began to fall, although the seven-day average of 6,500 is still well down on the 38,000 seen at the worst point of the second wave in January.
The fact it continues to rise is worrying officials, but what is of more concern is growing evidence immunity through vaccination is waning, meaning the Prime Minister could have some tough decisions next month after promising a review of the lockdown easing by 23 September.
Between now and then schools, colleges and universities will return, many more workers will have headed back to the office, and millions will return from foreign travel and holidays around the UK.
Professor Steven Reicher from the University of St Andrews, a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science, said: “It’s really important is to be clear about the fact that that infection is high, we can't act as if it's gone away, we do need to be cautious because this is the second summer where I think we haven't used the advantage of summer to get infections down.
"Last year we failed to do it and they went up, again this year - vaccination does change things, but we can't rely just on the vaccination - and I think the problem is we haven't done the other things that we need to do, like for instance making environments safe, making sure that we have clean air.”
Professor Tim Spector, lead scientist on the King's College London Zoe Covid study, said the virus had "found an opportunity to spread" as restrictions were lifted this summer.
"Unfortunately, we're back in a position where cases, hospitalisations and deaths are all going up and the UK has the highest rates of Covid in Europe, despite our superior vaccination rates,” he said this week.
He and other experts say it is inevitable we will see a “significant surge in infections” as schools return and off the back of a number of late summer festivals, with hundreds of thousands of young people on their way to Reading and Leeds Festival, Creamfields, All Points East and a host of others this Bank Holiday weekend.
Data from the government’s events research programme revealed more than 1,000 attendees at this summer’s Latitude Festival later tested positive for coronavirus, despite everyone who went needing to be fully vaccinated or test negative before going.
And almost 5,000 Covid cases have been linked to the Boardmasters festival in Cornwall this month, helping contribute to the county becoming a hotspot for the virus, and leading to Malcom Bell, chief executive of Visit Cornwall, telling Brits: “Don’t come if you haven’t booked.”
But Professor Robert Dingwall, who has advised on government policy for pandemics over many years, says people should not be too alarmed.
“A lot of people are still fixated on the numbers without realising that being infected in August 2021 is not the same as being infected in January 2021,” he told PoliticsHome
“If you're vaccinated the probability of a serious illness requiring hospitalisation is very small, and the vaccines are giving you as near as damn it 100% protection against this, so the question is what does the case data mean any more?”
He added: “The political challenge is really managing that transition of public understanding from ‘Covid is a serious infection that I have a high chance of dying from’, to ‘I've had a double dose of vaccines, they are very effective’.
“Waning immunity does not seem to be a great problem yet, so how much difference can we justify in everyday life in October 2021 from October 2019?”
He said it was important to see fatalities from Covid in perspective as it is no longer one of the leading causes of death.
“Even 100 deaths a day, it's hard to see how that number increases a great deal from the return of universities and the greater social mixing that will kick in from early September,” Dingwall added.
“It's certainly likely that the infections will increase but they will be increasing in either vaccinated people, or low risk people.”
Reicher, a behavioural scientist, explained that before the pandemic people had about 12 different social contacts per week. At the height of the restrictions that went down to about three, but so far it has now only gone up to about just over four.
“If it was to go back to more than 10 it would have a massive impact, it would push the rate up massively and would change the landscape entirely,” he said.
“So people's behaviour matters, and behaving to keep infections down matters - and if you undermine that then you will be in deep trouble.”
But Dingwall said the evidence since restrictions ended on July 19 in England the country has been “working towards a soft landing”.
“And I think for the purposes of the models assumptions were made about the proportion of people who would change their behaviour instantly, which weren't correct, I think what we're seeing is this sort of gradual shift,” he said.
“It was suggested there would be a bonfire of masks at the end of July. Yes, mask-wearing is clearly on the decline, but it is a process of adjustment that will continue and will temper the force of anything that is driving towards a big wave.”
Dingwall added: “It wouldn't surprise me frankly if we do live with 30 or 40,000 cases a day for a few more months.
“And as long as we're bumping along at around 6,500 people in hospital, if those numbers don't go up too much, it’s not imposing an intolerable stress on the NHS.”
Reicher accepts far fewer people who get infected will get ill or need serious treatment, with the number at the beginning of the pandemic admitted to hospital at around 10% of people infected, with that figure at roughly 3%.
But he points out if infections go high enough there will still be pressure on bed usage ahead of the winter when there are always higher levels of occupation, and urged people to think about the impact of “long Covid” too, along with the fact the more infection circulating around, the higher the probability of new variants.
Where the two experts do agree is that there is a huge amount of uncertainty in the weeks ahead before the government reviews its coronavirus policies, and there is work to be done.
Reicher pointed to the enormous public health benefit in the 19th century when clean water became available.
“We all watch those distressing adverts from around the world when you see poor kids having to drink dirty water,” he explained.
“Well, we'd never let our children do that, we'd never let anybody do that, but on the other hand we seem to be content to let people breathe in the equivalent of sewage in the air, and so a big move towards clean air is a change that we need, making sure all spaces are properly ventilated and we have CO2 monitors.
“Creating safe environments was something we should have been doing over last summer and we didn't do it, and we haven't done it again this summer.
“I don't think we've done enough to give people information so they know how to keep themselves safe.
“I do think that's likely to come home to roost when kids do go back to school around all of the UK, when people go back to universities, when people go back to work or when people move indoors, I think it has become more urgent than ever."
He added: “They missed an opportunity this summer but it’s still not too late - so let's get on with it.”
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