My article for The Telegraph:
There is now little doubt that the second wave of the virus crested before the lockdown began on Thursday. On Friday the Government announced that the number of new positive tests over the previous seven days was 156,742, or 2,006 fewer than in the previous seven days: the first time this autumn the weekly number had not gone up.
The same day the Office for National Statistics published its estimate, based on sampling the population, that the number of cases per day was 45,700, slightly down on the previous week, saying “incidence appears to have stabilised at around 50,000 new infections per day”.
A third source confirms the peak: the ZOE survey of King’s College London, using the Covid Symptom Study app, which estimated 42,049 new daily cases compared with 43,569 a week before. ZOE’s Professor Tim Spector noted on Friday that “while these population changes will take a while to work through, we believe they are a positive sign that we have passed the peak of this second wave”. He estimates R to be 1 for the UK as a whole, as does Alastair Grant of the University of East Anglia.
The ONS finds that case numbers are falling in the North west (they have been falling in Liverpool for nearly three weeks), and flat or rising more slowly than before in the rest of the country. The areas with strict regional lockdowns before the national lockdown are doing best.
The highest percentage of positive tests is among 17-24 year olds, but this is now the group seeing the fastest fall. The disease is rarely dangerous in the young and long-term complications are also rare. The big worry has always been the spread of the virus from the young to the elderly. That clearly has happened to some extent but it is not speeding up. In those over 70 the infection rate is still rising, but more slowly than it was in early October.
So statistics confirm what anecdote suggests: a significant autumn epidemic caused by the return of children to school and students to university, especially in northern cities, now flattening. This contrasts with the first wave, where 20 per cent of infections happened in hospitals and 45 per cent of deaths in care homes.
The number of people admitted to hospital with Covid has also started to slow. The Prime Minister says that a still rising number of deaths justifies lockdown. But the number of new cases tends to be two weeks ahead of hospitalisations and four weeks ahead of deaths, meaning that the peak in deaths should come at about the time the lockdown is due to end in early December. It will be wrong to credit lockdown for a fall in deaths until mid December.
The Government’s dashboard says the latest daily death rate, averaged over seven days (and defined as deaths within 28 days of a positive test) is 355. This is bad, but lower than expected by the four models used last Saturday to alarm us into lockdown, especially the now notorious Cambridge University/Public Health England model, which expected around 1,000 deaths a day by now, on course for a peak of 4,000 deaths a day. That forecast had twice been updated, producing much lower numbers, a fact omitted from the Downing Street briefing.
The first wave of infections also peaked before lockdown began, resulting in a peak of deaths on April 8. Voluntary social distancing had already begun to take effect. Now it is probably the regional, tiered restrictions that made the difference, although it cannot be ruled out that the wave is just running out of steam. This would happen if the virus relatively quickly depletes the population of superspreaders, people who for social or biological reasons are more likely to catch and pass on the virus.
The Government’s “reasonable worst case scenario”, still unpublished, seems to have bizarrely assumed no increase in cases until mid November, so it’s no wonder we are worse off than that. Like most respiratory viruses, Covid likes colder weather and prefers to spread indoors: it broke out in chilly abattoirs during the summer. An autumn second wave was probably inevitable, especially given the start of school and university terms. Locking down young people in March may have made it worse by ensuring there was a bigger population of susceptibles.
In 1889-90 a new respiratory virus with similar symptoms to Covid killed a million people, mainly the elderly and disproportionately men, as it spread around the world from Russia. Genetic evidence suggests it may have been a coronavirus, the one now known as OC43.
It too faded in summer but came back for a second wave in the autumn. It then largely ceased killing people, but it never went away: it is still with us as one of the causes of the common cold.
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