United Kingdom

Why are Covid infections plunging... and will they go up again?

Ever since Boris Johnson unveiled plans to end lockdown rules, Britons have faced wave after wave of sombre warnings.

New Health Secretary Sajid Javid said cases could reach 100,000 a day. Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London – dubbed 'Professor Lockdown' – said it could be 200,000.

Government scientists on the Sage committee said they could not rule out a summer wave of hospitalisations bigger than the winter peak, putting the NHS at risk of collapse.

And Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, suggested the situation in hospitals could rapidly get 'quite scary'.

The reality, at least so far, has been rather different. For six consecutive days, cases have dropped – the first time this has happened in months.

Yesterday's total of 24,950 cases is down 38 per cent from last Monday's total of 39,950. It is half the summer peak of 54,674 recorded on July 17.

It now seems clear this is a sustained fall. But what is driving it? And is it too soon to say the tide has turned?

VACCINATION

Without vaccines, the UK would probably still be in lockdown. But the jab rollout means the virus now faces a 'wall of immunity'

Without vaccines, the UK would probably still be in lockdown. But the jab rollout means the virus now faces a 'wall of immunity'.

Nine in ten adults have had one dose, while seven in ten are double-jabbed. Analysis by health officials suggests the rollout has prevented 7.2million infections in England.

In this respect, the controversial decision to postpone 'Freedom Day' planned for June 21 by a month appears to have paid off, as it bought time for millions of Britons to get their second jab.

One dose of the AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccine is between 30 and 36 per cent effective at preventing a symptomatic Covid infection. But after two doses, that rises to 67 per cent for AstraZeneca and 88 per cent for Pfizer. 

The jabs are even more effective against hospitalisation and death. Ultimately, as Professor Adam Finn, from the University of Bristol, says: 'Vaccination is the only weapon we have that can really snuff the virus out.'

HERD IMMUNITY

Herd immunity can be achieved either through natural infections or vaccination. The latest data shows nine in ten adults in the UK have antibodies which fight off Covid-19 infection

Once they emerge, diseases rarely leave. Smallpox is the only disease in history to have been successfully eradicated. Most simply fade into the background through the process of herd immunity – when enough of the population are immune, the virus starts to run out of new people to infect.

Herd immunity can be achieved either through natural infections or vaccination. The latest data shows nine in ten adults in the UK have antibodies which fight off Covid-19 infection. But children – who make up one in five of the population – are not being vaccinated, hampering progress towards population immunity.

However, because cases are so high in the young, many have acquired antibodies through infection.

The herd immunity threshold depends on how infectious a virus is. With the Wuhan strain of Covid-19, one infected person passed it to three others, meaning the herd immunity threshold was about 67 per cent. 

Because the Indian variant is twice as infectious, the herd immunity threshold is higher – 85 per cent. But Britain may be approaching this point.

SCHOOL HOLIDAYS/TESTING

Schools broke up for summer last week, halting the spread of the virus in classrooms. This also led to a drop in testing, as secondary school children are no longer required to do lateral flow tests twice a week

Schools broke up for summer last week, halting the spread of the virus in classrooms. This also led to a drop in testing, as secondary school children are no longer required to do lateral flow tests twice a week. 

However, this drop in daily testing cannot entirely explain the vast reduction in cases.

Those who have caught Covid for the second time are not being included in the daily totals, but these reinfections currently make up only around one in 200 positive tests, meaning they would add only a few hundred cases to the daily count.

END OF THE EUROS

Football didn't come home in the end, but the Euros are thought to have triggered a significant surge in cases as millions gathered indoors to cheer on Gareth Southgate's side

Football didn't come home in the end, but the Euros are thought to have triggered a significant surge in cases as millions gathered indoors to cheer on Gareth Southgate's side.

In the two weeks to July 11 – when England lost to Italy in the final – cases almost doubled. For the first time since the pandemic began, a significant gender gap emerged, with men in their 20s by far the most likely group to test positive.

Scientists say this may have been a blessing in disguise as it 'effectively immunised a lot more younger people who wouldn't otherwise have come for or been available for a vaccine'.

WEATHER

Summer provides a 'natural firebreak' against the virus as people gather outdoors where it rarely spreads

Summer provides a 'natural firebreak' against the virus as people gather outdoors where it rarely spreads. 

Before the storms of the weekend, Britain had enjoyed a sustained period of hotter, sunnier weather which may have contributed to the decline in spread. 

However, officials fear that Covid could return with a vengeance when it gets colder, taking advantage of cosy indoor gatherings with poor ventilation. Scientists warn that the UK is facing a 'triple threat' of flu, Covid, and resurgent respiratory viruses this winter.

PINGDEMIC

It may have ground the economy to a standstill, but the 'pingdemic' has also effectively placed millions in lockdown once again, cutting the spread of the virus

It may have ground the economy to a standstill, but the 'pingdemic' has also effectively placed millions in lockdown once again, cutting the spread of the virus. 

Dr Stephen Griffin, from the University of Leeds, said the huge numbers self-isolating 'could have a direct impact upon transmission'.

The public also appear to have heeded warnings from scientists and are taking things much more cautiously than before the pandemic. 

Many are still working from home and measures such as wearing masks on public transport have helped to control the spread of the virus.

BUT IT'S NOT OVER YET…

FREEDOM DAY

Scientists say we won't know the impact of 'Freedom Day' on infection levels until the end of this week. Scrapping compulsory face masks and allowing mass gatherings are all likely to have increased spread among young people. 

It means the bleak predictions of 100,000 cases a day may still be realised.

HOSPITAL PRESSURES

Despite warnings from Sage, it seems unlikely Covid admissions will get close to January levels – when there were nearly 40,000 in hospital. 

But health chiefs have warned that even a small rise in hospitalisations could put the NHS under severe strain, potentially requiring another lockdown. 

Last night NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, said the health service was already as stretched as it was in January.

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