Even the gloomiest modellers admit it: Britain is not facing a third Covid wave

·6-min read
Revellers arriving for a music festival in Sefton Park in Liverpool as part of the national Events Research Programme (ERP). Picture date: Sunday May 2, 2021. PA Photo. The festival includes performances from Blossoms, The Lathums and Liverpool singer-songwriter Zuzu. Gig-goers will not have to wear face coverings or social distance. Photo credit should read: Danny Lawson/PA Wire - Danny Lawson/PA Wire
Revellers arriving for a music festival in Sefton Park in Liverpool as part of the national Events Research Programme (ERP). Picture date: Sunday May 2, 2021. PA Photo. The festival includes performances from Blossoms, The Lathums and Liverpool singer-songwriter Zuzu. Gig-goers will not have to wear face coverings or social distance. Photo credit should read: Danny Lawson/PA Wire - Danny Lawson/PA Wire

It has finally happened.

After months of dire predictions, modellers have concluded that Britain is not facing a deadly third wave, and that deaths are likely to be five times fewer than previously suggested.

On Monday, as Boris Johnson announced that Step 3 of easing lockdown will go ahead, the Government released new models which paint an uncharacteristically hopeful picture of the coming months.

Gone are the mountains of infections, admissions and deaths that were predicted in February, replaced with the gentle hills of a slight upswing once full restrictions are lifted. Here is how the models have shifted:

Deaths

When the Government set out its roadmap proposals on Feb 22, it was based on modelling from Imperial College and Warwick University, and pulled together in a summary by the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M).

The Government had hoped for a major easing of lockdown by Easter, but was forced to slam on the brakes after SPI-M warned lifting restrictions could lead to an extra 30,000 deaths.

Imperial went further, suggesting 55,000 lives would be lost up to June 2022, even under the most cautious scenarios, and warned a third wave could be comparable to January, calling for masks and social distancing to remain in place even after lifting.

Roll forward three months and the models have been proven to be way too pessimistic.

The latest SPI-M summary admits the latest scenarios are "more optimistic" and says that another resurgence is likely to be "very small".

Imperial now believes that further waves will only lead to 9,000 deaths by next June, while Warwick predicts 7,200, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) suggests 4,000 if immunity does not wane.

On Monday, the Prime Minister said the Government was considering lifting social distancing on June 21, while Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser suggested masks may only be needed again next winter, in certain circumstances.

On Monday, England recorded its first reported zero death day, while Britain as a whole recorded just four deaths.

“Deaths and hospitalisations are at their lowest level since July,” said the Prime Minister on Monday. So, far from needing a summer of restrictions because of a deadly third wave, Britain now looks set to be virtually back to normal by July.

Vaccine effectiveness

One of the continued criticisms of the models is that they underestimate how effective the vaccines are, both at preventing illness and death, and stopping transmission.

In February, SPI-M estimated vaccines would reduce the risk of infection between 24 and 48 per cent after the first dose, and 30 to 60 per cent after the second dose.

However, real world results show that vaccination is far more effective.

Early data from Public Health England’s (PHE) Siren study of healthcare workers suggests the Pfizer jab reduced the risk of infection by 70 per cent after one dose and 85 per cent after the second dose.

On Monday, new data from PHE showed that the AstraZeneca vaccine lowers the risk of dying from a coronavirus infection by 80 per cent after just one dose. Likewise, real world data shows that the Pfizer vaccine offers 97 per cent protection against mortality after two doses.

The new models have also finally factored in the impact the vaccines have of reducing transmission. Previously, they ignored data showing AstraZeneca was reducing transmission by 67 per cent and Pfizer by 75 per cent.

SPI-M states in its latest paper: “All scenarios from the three groups lead to another wave, however these are considerably smaller than modelling at Step 2 of the roadmap.

“This is primarily the results of new emerging evidence of the extent to which vaccines reduce onward transmission from people who are vaccinated but nevertheless become infected. “

At Monday's press conference, Sir Patrick said: “Over the next month there will be many more people vaccinated.

“Everything is pointing to the fact vaccines are a very effective reduction in hospitalisations and deaths. If we carry on without variants we’re definitely pointing in the right direction.”

Immunity

One important feature of the new modelling is that, now, more realistic estimates of the number of people immune to the virus have been used.

In a paper dating from March 30, Imperial said that even with optimistic vaccine efficiency, just 44.6 per cent of the population would be protected, through prior disease or the jab, by June 21.

The new paper now assumes that the number protected against severe disease by the time restrictions are fully lifted will be 60 per cent. Many experts believe Britain has entered a state of at least partial herd immunity.

The modellers have also factored in that people will naturally be more cautious after the pandemic, with many continuing to work from home and levels of contact unlikely to go back to pre-crisis levels in the short term.

Pressure on the NHS

In February, modellers warned that subsequent waves would cause unsustainable pressure on the NHS.

“In line with previous modelling, the additional scenarios that SPI-M-O [Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, Operational sub-group] have been asked to model would be highly likely to result in a substantial number of hospital admissions and deaths,” the report said.

The experts warned that "maintaining baseline measures" to reduce transmission once restricted are lifted would save many lives and minimise the "threat to hospital capacity".

Now they have admitted there will be no threat to hospital capacity.

The latest paper concludes, that even if there is a resurgence of hospital admissions and deaths, it is "highly unlikely to put unsustainable pressure on the NHS".

The link between infections and admissions has now been broken, and up to 90 per cent of people who would have ordinarily ended up in hospital after contracting Covid would no longer be admitted.

In Monday's press conference Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, said: “The view of all chief medical officers based on advice is not only that rates are very low in hospital, but that we do not think there is a likelihood in the next period of seeing a significant increase on pressure on the NHS.”

The R number

In February, LSHTM estimated that schools returning would cause the R number to rise to between 1.1 and 1.5. It didn’t.

Imperial also predicted that that the opening of non-essential shops and outdoor hospitality on April 12 would see R rise to 1.2. Yet the latest government estimates suggest that the R value is stable between 0.8 and 1.

Although Monday saw a rise in infection rates of 3.1 per cent, tests have risen in the same period by 8.9 per cent.

On Monday, the Government moved the Covid-19 alert level from four to three. But it is unclear why it has not been lowered further to two, a designation for when infections and transmission is low.

It’s clear we’re now out the tunnel. Even the modellers are in agreement. So let’s speed up the release and celebrate a summer of normality.

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