Covid Could a third wave change 21 June plans in England?
Coronavirus cases are at a fairly low level currently, relative to the whole pandemic. But, as England prepares to allow people to mix more than they have at any point since March 2020, is that tide starting to turn?
There are signs national cases are beginning to rise.
And this relatively small uptick disguises much larger spikes in cases – and some rises in hospital admissions – in certain areas, including the north-west of England and also in large parts of Scotland.
As we know from experience, what might look like a small blip can quickly spiral into a huge wave if enough people are still susceptible to the virus.
The virus doesn’t have nearly the same opportunity to take off as it did at the start of the winter wave.
Half of adults in the UK are fully vaccinated and three-quarters have received their first jab and this is rising all the time. But that still leaves millions of people who are vulnerable to catching, spreading and becoming ill from the virus.
The more people who are fully vaccinated, the less chance of the virus spreading and the epidemic taking off again.
Is this a third wave?
There have been two major waves of infection during the UK’s epidemic – in spring 2020 and the past winter. Although there was the beginning of a resurgence in cases in the autumn, it was contained by a national lockdown in November – resulting in a “bump” in cases rather than a fully-fledged wave.
What we’re seeing now is far from a full-blown wave like the first two. However, the higher cases get, the faster they rise.
Recent data suggests cases might now be doubling as fast as every fortnight, although that is only based on the past few days.
That’s roughly as fast or faster than when the government’s scientific advisers recommended a lockdown in September. (Although the scale was partially disguised by problems in test labs creating a shortage, meaning infections weren’t being diagnosed.)
But at that point hospital admissions were doubling every fortnight, whereas now they remain roughly flat across the UK.
This suggests even if cases rise, vaccines are stopping as many infections progressing to serious illness.
But the picture of flat hospital admissions nationally disguises local increases in areas worst-hit by the the so-called Indian variant, now named the Delta variant by the World Health Organization.
Should we be worried?
Experts have expressed concern that hospital admissions are rising again in areas affected by the the Indian variant.
The question is whether this rise will continue or level off, and whether it will spill out into other parts of the country where admissions are currently still falling.
In some hotspots like Bolton and Bedford, cases already appear to be coming back down. Given it takes time for a case to turn into a hospital admission, we might expect to see those numbers start falling in these areas too.
But at the moment, we’re in a “wait-and-see” phase. Cases have only just started to rise across the UK, so it will take some time before we know whether, or how much, that leads to a rise in hospital admissions – and if they are concentrated in the unvaccinated population.
Public health leaders in areas like Bolton have said many of their hospital patients were not yet, or had only just become, eligible for the vaccine.
This has led some scientists to call for the 21 June date to be pushed back to allow more people to be fully vaccinated, before allowing unrestricted mixing at weddings and clubs, and inside people’s homes.
What have scientists said?
Prof Ravi Gupta, at the University of Cambridge, has said the UK is already in the early stages of a third wave of infections, and called for the 21 June ending of restrictions in England to be postponed.
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His fears have been echoed by Prof Andrew Hayward, a government scientific adviser, and Prof Christina Pagel, at University College London, who sits on a group which calls itself Independent Sage
But government adviser Sir John Bell, Regius Professor of Medicine at Oxford University, said he was “encouraged” by the numbers, before adding another week’s data was needed before decisions could be made.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock have indicated they will wait for more data before making the decision, though they said there was “nothing in the data” at the moment to change plans.
The government is due to announce its decision on England’s 21 June easing a week before, on 14 June, so the next week-and-a-half’s figures will be crucial.