United Kingdom

Fall in Covid deaths ahead of estimates as calls for quicker lockdown easing grow

The fall in Covid deaths in England is running around three weeks ahead of modelling estimates, figures show, as experts called for lockdown to be eased more quickly. 

Boris Johnson has promised that the Government will lift restrictions based on "data not dates", and figures now show that Britain's second virus wave is declining far faster than expected.

The most recent Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (SPI-M) projections were produced on Feb 10 and were pivotal in developing the Government's roadmap out of restrictions.

The midpoint projections estimated that deaths in England would not fall below 200 a day until around mid-March – but that point was reached on Feb 25.

SPI-M suggested there would be around 150 deaths a day by March 21, when the model ends. But daily deaths by date of death are around that now, although there will be a small increase because of lagged data in coming days.

Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh and a member of SPI-M, said: "The data are indeed looking better than the models were predicting and – to the best of my knowledge – better than anyone was expecting.

"If the phrase 'data-driven not date-driven' has any meaning, then it must allow for the schedule for relaxing restrictions to be brought forward if the data are better than expected and not just putting the schedule back if the data are worse than expected.

"It remains the case that if we unlock too far, too quickly, we risk a resurgence. However, given the data, I'd hope that the Government is actively considering unlocking just as cautiously but appreciably less slowly.

"Lockdown continues to be just as harmful as ever, so there is a public health imperative to relax measures as soon as it is safe to do so. An over-abundance of caution is not a cost-free option."

The modelling may be running behind real-world data because it has failed to judge quite how well the vaccination programme would go.

For the purposes of the roadmap, SPI-M estimated that vaccines would reduce the risk of infection between 24 and 48 per cent after the first dose, and 30 to 60 per cent after the second dose. But real world results show vaccination is far more effective, reducing the risk by 70 per cent after one dose and 85 per cent after two doses.

Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter, of the University of Cambridge, said:  "If we look at what is happening every day as we see on the [Government's coronavirus] dashboard, we can see that deaths in the over-65s – one of the vaccinated age groups – are now halving every week.

"We all sort of hoped something like this might happen – but frankly it is better than anyone expected, I think."

The numbers of new hospital admissions are also falling slightly faster than anticipated by the SPI-M model. Admissions in England fell to roughly 1,000 by Feb 21, but the midpoint on the models suggested around 1,200 cases at the same point. The seven-day rolling figure shows numbers are closer to those modelled.

One government adviser said scientists had consistently failed to update their models as new data became available throughout the pandemic.

"This has been a problem all the way through," the adviser said. "You can get so obsessed with models that, if the world doesn't fit, you have to make the world fit or ignore the world."

Prof Carl Heneghan, the director of the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine at the University of Oxford, said it was important to wait until schools go back next week to check that the numbers would continue to fall. 

"We all have to hit the pause button until then," he said. "But if, after schools go back, there isn't a big uptick then we're in a very different position and can think about opening up sooner rather than later.

"It's a very positive story in terms of the rollout of the vaccine, and the situation is looking very good in the elderly. Admissions are coming down and the number of people in hospital could well be below 10,000 within the next few days."

The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show that 56.4 per cent of the over-80s in England now have Covid antibodies following the vaccine rollout – an increase of 37 per cent in a fortnight.

Overall, nearly one in four over-16s in England now has immunity to coronavirus – a total of 10.5 million people and an increase of 23.3 per cent in two weeks. The devolved nations are not doing quite so well, however, with just 18.5 per cent of the over-80s showing antibodies in Wales, 20.7 per cent in Scotland and 17.6 per cent in Northern Ireland. 

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