Modellers warned of ‘1m cases a week’ even as third wave was subsiding

·4-min read
Modelling illustration
Modelling illustration

Government modellers predicted that cases could hit one million a week in a last-minute warning ahead of "Freedom Day".

Documents released by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies on Friday show that scientists forecast increasing numbers of cases and said they expected July 19 to bring "further waves of infections, hospitalisations and deaths".

The statement of "concerns" from the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M) subgroup on July 14 also reveals that the modellers believed the ending of restrictions may have to be reversed.

Yet daily cases have dropped dramatically since peaking the next day, July 15, at around 60,000 – less than half the number the group was predicting. Infection numbers fell again on Friday to 29,622 after a slight rise earlier in the week, less than a quarter of the forecast. The seven-day average is now down 36 per cent.

There is also no signal yet that July 19 has had a major impact on case numbers. Many businesses and transport networks are continuing to ask customers to wear masks and socially distance.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith, a former Tory leader, told The Telegraph that there were "some scientists" who did not want restrictions to be lifted until there was "zero Covid".

He said: "The Government is constantly being assailed by scientists whose forecasts seem to be around fulfilling a purpose, keeping us in lockdown. We are in a state of unreality, it's as though we don't need an economy, we don't need to meet each other, we don't need to do anything that makes life worthwhile. But we do."

Sir Iain warned that without all of these things, the public were living "a demi life", adding: "We have been driven into a vortex led by these incredible forecasts that never seem to be right."

The SPI-M document, from two days after Boris Johnson confirmed the lifting of restrictions would go ahead, shows that modellers advised that a high volume of cases could overwhelm testing services, and that measures may need to be implemented to reverse growth.

"Delaying introduction of measures increases the risk that they will have to be more stringent if applied," they warned. "Any epidemic trajectory that could lead to unsustainable pressure on the NHS or other adverse outcomes would need to be identified and a contingency enacted within days.

"If incidence reaches very high levels, such as greater than one million infections per week, there could be implications for workforces and critical infrastructure."

The document also warns that vaccines could become less effective as the virus increases in the community and said the peak could be drawn out "over many weeks" before population level immunity was achieved.

However, even surveillance studies by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) appear to show infection rates are slowing.

The weekly ONS infection survey released on Friday reported that cases rose just 15 per cent between the weeks ending July 17 and July 24, compared to rises of 28 per cent, 73 per cent and 57 per cent in the past three bulletins.

The team said that although the figures did not reflect the rapid drop seen in the Government's daily reported data, four in 10 of the cases they picked up were asymptomatic, so were less likely to show up in dashboard numbers.

Experts said the ONS figures were not representative of the current situation because surveillance testing still picks up people who had been diagnosed weeks earlier.

This is the first week that the ONS has picked up the decline in Scotland, even though the country peaked on June 30.

Paul Hunter, professor medicine at the University of East Anglia, said: "The important point to point out is that the ONS survey largely covers a period prior to the decline in cases, especially as this is a prevalence survey and people can be positive for some time after acquiring their infection.

"We will have to wait till next week before we can see any indication of the recent decline in cases. Generally changes in ONS data lag about two weeks behind daily cases data."

Data from the King's College Zoe app, which is usually a week ahead of the government figures, also suggests cases have stopped rising. The overall number of estimated daily new symptomatic cases is 60,480 and has remained stable over the past six days, suggesting that new cases of Covid have stopped rising in the UK, the team said.

Tim Spector, lead scientist on the app and professor of genetic epidemiology at King's, said: "Cases have stopped rising for the last week and are holding steady around the 60,000 mark."

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