When Boris Johnson announced that swathes of northern England would return to a partial lockdown on Thursday night, he warned that the UK could be just two weeks away from a “damaging second wave” of coronavirus infections.
But the data suggests a different picture - the uptick in cases is a demonstration that parts of the country never brought the first wave of Covid-19 under control.
For several months the average infection rate across affected local authorities in northern England has been tracking at a much higher level than the rest of the country, analysis by the Telegraph shows (see chart below).
Taking into account the daily rate of new infections, the fresh lockdown zone experienced a higher peak than the rest of England, reaching 9.3 cases per 100,000 people by late April, compared to a national average of 7.2.
But the rate in affected local authorities has also dropped more gradually, according to data from Public Health England (PHE). Since its peak the average infection rate in the locked down areas has struggled to fall below three per 100,000 people, while the national average dropped to beneath one per 100,000.
“The virus has always been there, it never went away,” Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the Edinburgh University, told the Telegraph. “We have been running at quite a significant level of community transmission.”
“There’s no second wave, this uptick is just the lasting, localised ripples from the first wave,” added Karol Sikora, professor of medicine at the University of Buckingham and former director of the World Health Organization. “There are more outbreaks than we would like, but I’m still optimistic that this is a temporary blip that can be controlled.”
He suggested that the area may have struggled to contain Covid-19 due to “higher levels of social deprivation, with people living together in groups and not able to isolate, so it just recycles around”.
The new rules, which came into effect on Friday, dictate that households in Greater Manchester, parts of east Lancashire and West Yorkshire can no longer meet each other inside their homes or in gardens.
Members of two different households are also banned from mixing in pubs, restaurants and other hospitality venues, though these businesses have not been told to close.
Prof Sridhar suggested that the return to partial lockdown may be a result of the Government attempting to ease too many restrictions at once in May and June, rather than take a “slow and steady” approach.
“The only way you wouldn’t see an uptick is if testing and tracing was able to catch clusters and quickly prevent it from spilling out into more and more infections,” Prof Sridhar said. “So this could mean that our contact tracing system isn’t quite effective enough right now, or that the levels of infections were still too high when we released lockdown.”
But she praised the Government for acting quickly - the measures are far less severe than those imposed in Leicester at the end of June, but have been implemented sooner.
When the city saw restrictions introduced the rate of transmission had hit about 150 cases per 100,000 people in a week - compared to an average rate of around 5 per 100,000 elsewhere. The areas under new measures have clearly not reached that peak, but are significantly higher than average.
The rate of infection is now above 40 per 100,000 people in Oldham, Bradford, Pendle and Trafford, while this figure has jumped from 20.8 to 33.6 in the space of a week in Calderdale and from 13.9 to 25.9 in Manchester.
The largest week-on-week rises have come in Oldham, from 23.2 to 54 cases per 100,000, Trafford, from 15.2 to 40.9, Melton, from 7.8 to 31.2 and Swindon, from 9 to 28.8.
“It’s clear that suppression is the overall objective and [the Government] is taking this seriously,” Prof Sridhar said. “We saw in the United States that leaders didn’t introduce restrictions until they really had a problem with hospitalisations and deaths rising. I think this is the Government saying they don’t want to repeat those mistakes.”
She added that she was pleased that Professor Chris Whitty warned on Friday that the UK “cannot have it all”.
The Chief Medical Officer said that it might not be possible to ease coronavirus control measures further, and that the UK has “probably reached near the limit or the limits” of what can be done to reopen society. His comments were echoed by Professor Graham Medley, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) on Saturday, who warned pubs may need to close if schools are going to reopen.
But not everyone agrees. The leader of Rossendale council that the area had been “mopped up” under the blanket restrictions despite having a low infection rate, while Telegraph analysis has revealed that 2.7 million people are living in neighbourhoods which have seen fewer than four cases in a fortnight, but were still subjected to the fresh measures.
“The numbers of cases are very low overall, you have to wonder if the politicians have just been spooked,” said Prof Sikora.
Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security