Covid cases to slump this winter, say scientists

·5 min read
Covid test site - Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Covid test site - Andy Rain/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Covid cases will plummet in November even without "Plan B" restrictions, modelling seen by the Government suggests.

Ministers are thought to be holding back from introducing restrictions such as compulsory face masks, working from home and vaccine passports after seeing projections from several groups which show infections declining rapidly within weeks.

One model, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, suggests cases will soon peak before falling steeply in the winter months, even without the use of "Plan B".

The Telegraph understands that other unpublished models seen by the Government have also shown similar imminent drops, with experts indicating that cases could fall to around 5,000 a day before Christmas.

Prof John Edmunds, of the Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the school and a member of Sage and its SPI-M sub-group, said: "When we were doing the work about two weeks ago, the Health Secretary had made it very clear that the Government was not planning to introduce 'Plan B' in the near future.

"Our model was projecting that cases would start to decline some time in the autumn. However, the model also suggests that cases may start to climb again in the spring, due to a combination of waning immunity and increased contacts."

Much of the current wave of cases is being driven by high case rates in children. Scientific sources close to the Government expect the "children's epidemic" to run out of steam soon as immunity in youngsters increases, both through infection and vaccination.

The October half-term, which for many schools begins on Monday, is also expected to help bring down case numbers.

Scientists believe that the virus is close to reaching “endemic equilibrium” and that recent oscillations in case rates will soon settle down.

On Sunday, Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, ruled out the imminent implementation of additional restrictions as laid out in the Government's Autumn and Winter Plan.

"We're monitoring everything, but at the moment the data does not suggest that we should be immediately moving to 'Plan B', but of course we will keep an eye on that and the plans are ready," Mr Sunak told BBC One's The Andrew Marr Show.

Maggie Throup, the vaccines minister, also said 'Plan A' is "working" and the situation was "where we need to be".

The Government is coming under increasing pressure to implement "Plan B" after daily cases rose beyond 50,000 last week, while hospital admissions increased to more than 1,000.

On Sunday, Labour said it backed the immediate reintroduction of restrictions, despite Sir Keir Starmer saying on Thursday that the debate over which plan to follow was the "wrong focus".

Prof Peter Openshaw, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, said case numbers and death rates are currently "unacceptable", advising people to "take matters into your own hands" and telling BBC Breakfast on Saturday: "Don't wait, necessarily, for government policy."

However, on Sunday infections dropped below 40,000 for the first time in 12 days, to 39,962. Deaths fell to 72.

Epidemiologists are projecting a smaller spring wave and so have modelled the impact of "Plan B" restrictions in April.

But they found even if face coverings, working from home and vaccine certificates are introduced in the spring, it would only serve to delay deaths until next autumn.

Prof Edmunds said "Plan B" could still be useful next year "as it buys you time" to increase vaccination uptake or introduce new drugs. However, he warned the effect would not prevent a later outbreak.

"If you implement non-pharmacutical interventions temporarily and then lift them, then their main effect is to delay any outbreak," he said. "You can see this most clearly in the scenario when we implement all of the measures."

Experts said that, if the models were correct, it would do little good to bring in restrictions at this stage and would be better for long-term immunity to allow the virus to spread.

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said: "There are times when delaying is really valuable, but there comes a point when restrictions have no value because you've got as much protection as you're going to get, so you end up putting it off to a point where you lose immunity.

"What the modelling suggests is that even without 'Plan B', we should expect to see case numbers falling quite rapidly in the next few weeks. If correct, Christmas should see some of the lowest number of cases of Covid since late May/early June, even without further restrictions.

"If it's right, then this issue about whether we should be locking down is immaterial. We shouldn't, and the Government is doing the right thing."

Downing Street has insisted there is still spare capacity in the NHS and restrictions will only be activated if it comes under “significant pressure”.

Mr Sunak also said a return of the furlough scheme was "not on the cards", indicating that there would not be a lockdown which required the economy to shut down.

He said the vaccine rollout was the "best line of defence against having to move to put in place any restrictions".

Prof Graham Medley, the chairman of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling and Professor of Infectious Disease Modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: "We still don't know how the booster programme will actually work out but, if it gets enough vaccines into enough people fast enough, then it’s a very strong barrier."

However, scientists warned that none of the models account for the new delta variant, AY4.2, which may be 10 per cent more infectious, and could stop cases declining as rapidly as expected.

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