We could see a fresh increase in infections soon… and then there’s Christmas
Written by on 13 November 2020
The latest data adds to the mounting evidence that the pandemic is slowing in the UK.
But it’s too soon to declare that lockdowns in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland have been a success.
The chief medical officers of the UK have reduced the R number by a small amount, suggesting that the growth of the outbreak is slowing.
This is not the same as an actual decrease. If R is 1 then every person with the virus infects one other person.
If 10,000 people have it, that means they’ll infect 10,000 more, with the inevitable impact on deaths and hospitalisations.
According to the Office for National Statistics survey, one of the most reliable pictures of the state of the epidemic, 654,000 people in England had the virus in the week leading up to 6 November.
Unless the R number goes below 1, that number will not begin to fall.
After its influential REACT study showed a similar flattening off, a scientist from Imperial College London compared it to being up a mountain.
The team behind the breakthrough COVID jab
If the gradient gets less steep, the climb might be easier – but you are still very high and that is the crucial fact.
That picture is borne out in the data on deaths and hospital admissions, which shows no sign of slowing, and may not for several weeks yet.
But it is possible to find more optimistic assessments. The team behind the COVID Symptom Study app now estimates that R is below 1 in every region of the UK.
But even if this is correct, and it may well be as the app tends to be ahead of the official figures, the raw fact of high prevalence is inescapable.
For that reason, I am sure the government and its scientific advisors are already worrying about the end of lockdown.
With modelling suggesting that the R number is unlikely to go below 0.6 during this lockdown, it seems unlikely that prevalence will have fallen to a very low level by 2 December.
New documents confirm SAGE’s view of the existing Tier system: if it is reintroduced, they say, then cases will simply rise back to the level they were at the beginning of lockdown.
And then there’s Christmas.
Movement data from across England shows very clearly that people began to move around much more in advance of lockdown.
In London, according to travel app Citymapper, more people made journeys than at any point since 16 March.
What will people do once this lockdown ends? With government messaging framing Christmas as a reward for good behaviour, it seems unlikely that people will stay at home by themselves, after so long apart from their families.
We could be seeing a fresh wave of infections before too long.
Unless the vaccine arrives soon, or we discover a new strategy for managing the virus, this lockdown may turn out to be less effective than we hoped – even if the early signs are that it is having an impact.