Winter coronavirus outbreak in UK could be worse than first peak and cause 120,000 deaths, scientists warn

Scientists have warned a fresh coronavirus outbreak in the winter could be even worse than the first peak and cause up to 120,000 deaths in a worst-case scenario.

With the first COVID-19 wave tailing off – there were 11 deaths recorded in the UK on Monday, the lowest daily total since 13 March – scientists have urged Boris Johnson to act in the next six weeks to guard against a second wave in the winter.

A new report by the Academy of Medical Sciences states the ”reasonable worst-case scenario” to prepare for is a reproduction rate (known as the “R” value) of 1.7 from September.

Thirty-seven scientists have modelled a scenario forecasting a second peak of hospital admissions and deaths in January or February next year, with a possible 119,900 deaths between September and June.

As of Monday, the UK’s coronavirus death toll was 44,830. The first two cases were confirmed on 31 January.

In this Thursday, April 16, 2020 photo, staff receive training on how to put on and remove PPE, personal protective equipment to avoid being infected or transmitting coronavirus, at the Nightingale Hospital North West set up in the Manchester Central Convention Complex in Manchester, northern England. The complex has been converted into a hospital to provide care for an increased number of patients requiring treatment during the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Jon Super)
The government needs to act now to protect hospitals in the winter, scientists have warned in a new report on COVID-19. (AP)

However, the report’s forecasts do not take account of measures the government would take to restrict the spread in the winter, nor the hospital use of steroid dexamethasone, which could substantially reduce deaths.

Professor Stephen Holgate, a respiratory scientist who chaired the report, said: “This is not a prediction, but it is a possibility. The modelling suggests that deaths could be higher with a new wave of COVID-19 this winter, but the risk of this happening could be reduced if we take action immediately.

“With relatively low numbers of COVID-19 cases at the moment, this is a critical window of opportunity to help us prepare for the worst that winter can throw at us.”

The report is said to have been requested by Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser who has been at the forefront of its coronavirus response.

The NHS comes under greater strain each winter even when COVID-19 isn’t taken into account, with an increase in people admitted to hospital for flu and heart and lung conditions.

Research has suggested the virus is more likely to spread in the winter as people spend less time outdoors and it is able to survive for longer in cold conditions.

Professor Dame Anne Johnson said: “We need to minimise coronavirus and flu transmission everywhere, and especially in hospitals and care homes. We need to get our health and social care, and the track, trace and isolate programme, ready for winter.

“This can be done, but it must be done now.”

The report set out a number of recommendations to stop the NHS being “overwhelmed” in the winter. They include:

  • Taking steps to minimise community transmission, with advice tailored to high-risk people, as well as information campaigns

  • Reorganising health and social care staff and facilities to maintain COVID-19 and COVID-19-free zones

  • Ensuring there is adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for hospital and social care staff – something that was a major issue at the beginning of the outbreak

  • Ensuring people vulnerable to flu, as well as health and social care workers, are vaccinated

The new report echoes concerns previously raised by the government’s top scientific advisers.

Last month, when Boris Johnson announced the easing of lockdown measures, Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, warned the virus is likely to be in circulation in the “winter and into next spring”.

In May, Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, also said: “The reality is, until we get a vaccine, and only if we get a vaccine that is really capable of suppressing disease levels, will we ever be ‘out of this’?

“From that perspective, we may have to live, and learn to live, with this virus in the long-term. Certainly for many months to come, if not years.”

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