They are questions lurking in many people’s minds: just how upbeat or pessimistic should we be about the pandemic now? How does the UK compare with other countries? And is the worst of the crisis really over?
Two weeks after “freedom day” in England and with case numbers across the UK remaining lower than some modellers had feared, the worst seems to have eased. Future lockdowns, according to experts, seem unlikely unless new variants emerge.
But as Covid has shown time and again, the future is unpredictable. While cases in the UK rose over the early summer, they fell dramatically from mid-July – a decline that surprised experts, who suggested explanations from the clement weather to the end of Euro 2020.
Now that decline has stalled and infections may even be rising once more. The Covid case rate is higher in the UK than many countries in Europe, with Reuters reporting 282 infections per 100,000 people over the last seven days, compared with 236 in France, 68 in Italy and 23 in Germany. Spain is higher at 299 per 100,000. Meanwhile, the UK’s much touted vaccination programme is no longer an outlier: six European countries, including Portugal and Denmark, now have higher levels of fully vaccinated people.
And while the number of patients admitted to hospital with Covid remains below 1,000 a day, experts say pressures are growing again.
Prof Ravi Gupta of the University of Cambridge, a co-opted member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group that advises the government, said the situation in hospitals was already difficult.
“I’ve just done a ward round and my entire infection ward is mainly Covid,” he said, citing a mix of vaccinated and unvaccinated patients. “Seeing how sick some of these people have been, it is really … quite discordant with what is happening in society where everyone is going out [thinking Covid] is not a problem any more.”
“It’s too early to be saying it’s all over,” said Gupta. “And seeing the degree of lung damage [on patients’ scans], it is very sobering to think that the government could have said, this is OK, for large numbers of people [to get Covid].”
Prof Andrew Hayward, the director of the Institute of Epidemiology at University College London, who has contributed to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said it was reassuring that cases appeared to have stabilised as it was an exponential rise that threatened to overwhelm the NHS. The UK is now moving from a pandemic to an endemic situation, he said.
But while Hayward said high levels of antibodies and cautious behaviour among the public, among other factors, meant the situation boded well for the summer and early autumn, the picture for the UK becomes more uncertain after that.
As Sage documents have pointed out, the return of schools and office working, waning immunity and other factors later this year mean there is the potential for a Covid resurgence that could place considerable strain on the NHS.
It is a view shared by Prof Rowland Kao, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh who contributes to the Spi-M modelling subgroup of Sage.
“As this [autumn] is the point where we also will start having concerns about flu transmission, RSV [respiratory syncytial virus] and other respiratory diseases, there remains the question of whether or not the combined stress of these different illnesses will result in substantial pressure on the NHS,” he said. Some caution – including measures such as mask wearing – is needed, while new variants also pose a concern, he said.
But for now, it seems the contrast between street and ward remains. “A public demonstration of mask wearing is the only thing we pretty much have left to remind us that [people are] still dying in hospital and that there’s a huge challenge faced by this country that is not over yet,” said Gupta.