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As COVID-19 cases seem to be rising sharply, should we be panicking again?

Written by on 15 September 2020

A further 3,105 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in the UK – and the number seems to be rising rapidly, having ticked over 1,000 only a few weeks ago.

Meanwhile, coronavirus is spreading fast in Spain and France, and we are once again hearing dreadful stories about hospitals being overwhelmed with cases in certain hotspots.

It feels a lot like the miserable days of March when the disease was first spreading around the country – so should we be panicking all over again?

The short answer is no.

Image:
The number of COVID-19 cases seems to be rising rapidly

We should be cautious and careful and we should brace ourselves for more cases and, alas, more deaths.

But so far the data is pointing towards an outbreak of a markedly different nature from the one we endured in the spring. And that’s (cautiously) good news.

There are two crucial lessons from last time that we need to remember.

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The first is that we tend to follow in others’ footsteps.

It might seem implausible but back in March many people were sceptical that Britain could follow in the footsteps of Spain and Italy.

Yet we did, with infections and deaths rising on more or less the same trajectory – only with a two or three week delay.

The same is happening this time around.

Cases in the UK seem to be following precisely the same path as we’re seeing in France and Spain.

They too rose from having 1,000 to 3,000 cases in about 30 days (actually, Spain was a little quicker, but the rate was pretty similar).

And in much the same way as France and Spain were at 3,000 cases a few weeks ago, the chances are that the UK will be at 10,000 or so cases, as Spain is today, within a few weeks.

That, after all, is what happened last time around and, so far at least, the data suggests we are following a similar path.

But think for a moment about those numbers. They are rising, yes, but they are not multiplying at quite the same speed as in the spring.

Back then, deaths (the best metric for the spread of the disease back then) were doubling every three or four days. This time around cases are doubling roughly every 10 days – perhaps every 15.

Those differences matter enormously, and this brings us to the second lesson: don’t forget the power of exponential growth.

Both of the above growth rates are types of exponential growth, yet even small differences like this very quickly add up.

Put it this way: it’s akin to the difference between the spread of the disease in Germany during the spring and the spread of the disease in Britain and Italy.

And right now what we’re seeing in Spain, France and the UK looks a lot more like the former than the latter.

Now it is early days and it’s worth being cautious – very cautious – since these numbers may soon change.

Coronavirus testing in south London
Image:
Coronavirus testing takes place in south London

It’s possible that cases may yet accelerate in Spain and France.

But actually the more recent news from Spain – on cases at least – is tentatively encouraging.

Some 9,437 cases in the past 24 hours, and the running daily average has actually been around that 9,000-10,000 level for the past week or so.

Indeed, on the basis of their own modelling, the Spanish health ministry reckons the reproduction rate in their country – that key R number showing how many people each infected person is passing the disease to – is not only below 1 but is below 0.5%.

If this is to be relied upon, it is very good news.

For, at the risk of repeating myself, look at the data and you’ll see that we are following in Spain’s footsteps and need to keep a very close eye on how the disease evolves there.

Hospitalisations are on the rise, as are deaths.

In some parts, including the Spanish capital, the health system is under strain.

Yet while admissions are indeed rising, the evidence suggests that thus far they are rising at a slower rate than in the spring.

Some conclusions:

  • UK cases of COVID-19 will continue to rise in the coming weeks. They will plausibly hit 10,000 within a few weeks
  • Hospitalisations will rise
  • Deaths will rise
  • But the increases should, if it’s anything like Spain/France, be gradual
  • These are ingredients for caution – but not panic

There are crucial provisos. Spain’s cases seem to be coming under control not in the absence of action but following measures imposed by the government.

In Spain, they have limited gatherings much like the UK via the “rule of six” (their rule is 10). They are not “letting it rip”.

And while it has been criticised domestically, the Spanish testing and tracking system appears to have remained resilient in the face of the disease.

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Here in the UK, similar rules have been put in place but there are already concerns about the robustness of the testing system, which is creaking under increased demand.

Insiders say that’s not a critical problem for the UK, since they hope the “rule of six” will be all-important in keeping the spread of the disease down. But we shall see.

The next few weeks will be both crucial and nerve-wracking.

The disease will spread and so will concern.

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The testing system is likely to be unable to meet demand for some weeks as extra capacity is still some weeks off.

But so far at least, there is a crucial difference with the first wave of the disease.

So far, this is not the same as what we faced last time around. Let’s hope we can keep saying that for many more weeks to come.