Are the Rises in COVID-19 Cases a Cause for Concern?
There is little doubt that COVID-19 cases have dropped significantly. From a high of around 68,000 in early January 2021, rates are now around 4,000 per day. The number of confirmed cases is now flattening out, and the R-rate has increased in the past week. In this article, we will discuss whether the rise in COVID-19 cases in the UK is a cause for concern.
R-rate Has Increased, Suggesting Cases Will Rise
According to the latest government statistics, the R-rate is between 0.7 and 0.9. This means that on average, every ten people with COVID-19 will go on to infect between seven and nine others. This has crept up for the first time since January 2021, when it was estimated the R-rate was between 0.6 and 0.9. This is to be expected due to the reopening of schools across the UK and may rise more as further lockdown restrictions are eased in the coming weeks and months.
A Third-Wave From The EU Is Expected Soon
In the past week, Boris Johnson said that there was no doubt that the current third-wave of COVID-19 cases affecting the EU will “wash up” on our shores. This was warned about several weeks ago by senior officials, including England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty. Slightly more of concern were Johnson’s words in a recent briefing during which he said that he was not sure how strong the UK’s defences would be against this third-wave; “What we don’t know is exactly how strong our fortifications now are, how robust our defences are against another wave”. Using many a wartime analogy, he said that everyone should take the vaccine to help “build our defences”.
Will The COVID-19 Vaccine Protect Us From A Rise In Cases?
The simple answer to this question is ‘yes’, but vaccines do not offer 100% protection. Professor Whitty has stated that while case numbers in the UK are “flattening out”, deaths were “continuing to fall”. He attributes this to both the ongoing lockdown and the effectiveness of the UK’s vaccine programme. He also said on 29th March 2021 that “everything’s moving in the right direction” to unlock as planned on 12th April 2021. A note of caution was also issued that the data on school reopenings was still to be fully gathered and analysed, and this would need to be taken into account.
Whitty also explained, “We do have a wall of vaccines that will get stronger with second vaccines … but it is not a complete wall, it is kind of a leaky wall”.
Most interestingly was the explanation of the likely impact of the vaccination programme on hospitalisations and deaths. It is fully expected that cases will rise, but as long as deaths continue to fall, this will not be so much of a problem. In reality, the government is expecting a significant reduction in hospitalisations in all age groups, but because vaccines are not 100% effective, people will still end up with serious cases of COVID-19. The way that the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Valance explained this was as follows. If no 55-64-year-olds were vaccinated, they would expect that 29 people for every 100,000 people would be hospitalised over a four week period. If they were vaccinated, this would fall to 5.8 hospitalisations.
The numbers for 45-54 years olds is 21.2 and 4.2 respectively, for 35-44-year-olds is 13.9 and 2.8, and for 25-34-year-olds, it is 7 and 1.4. This data suggests that even with a vaccinated population, hospitalisations and deaths are still expected, but at much lower levels. And the number of hospitalisations will increase with the number of cases in the community. For this reason, the government will need to keep a close eye on case rates even once everyone is fully vaccinated to ensure that hospitals can continue to deal with the level of cases in addition to their normal caseload. This is also the reason why the government and scientists are urging caution as the lockdown measures and restrictions are lifted. The government will be assessing the situation for a period of five weeks after each major stage of lockdown easing before allowing further relaxations. This will allow sufficient time for data to be gathered and analysed on which decision making can be based.
The Importance Of Caution As Lockdown Is Eased
The government and chief medical officials have been at pains to point out that members of the public need to remain vigilant in exercising social distancing and other measures which limit the spread of the virus. It is possible that the issue here is about terminology. If the wider public believes that come 21st June, which is step four (and the final step) in easing the lockdown means that no caution is needed, this could pose a problem. The government website currently says that “By Step 4, which will take place no earlier than 21st June, the government hopes to be in a position to remove all legal limits on social contact”. This slightly conflicts with the BBC’s report that “Before the fourth step, ministers will carry out a review into social distancing and other “long-term measures” designed to reduce transmission, including the “one metre plus” rule and the wearing of face coverings”.
As such, it is not clear what the removal of all legal limits in social contact means. Anyone expecting social distancing and mask-wearing to disappear overnight on 12th June may be disappointed.
It is clear that while the COVID-19 vaccine programme is going to allow us all to return to how things were pre-pandemic, life will not be exactly the same. Even if the risk of the virus abates completely, it may take a long time for people to feel confident to go back out in public. We won’t go back to ‘normal’; it will almost certainly be a ‘new normal’.