UK Covid cases are falling despite the easing of lockdowns, surprising experts

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People dancing at Egg London nightclub early in the morning on July 19, 2021 in London, England.

Rob Pinney | Getty Images

LONDON – Covid-19 cases in the UK fell for the seventh straight day on Tuesday to 23,511 from 46,588 a week earlier, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson has urged the public to remain cautious.

Speaking to LBC Radio on Wednesday, Johnson said it was important not to jump to conclusions and remember that “the virus is still out there”.

“A lot of people have it and it still poses a significant risk,” he added.

Despite falling infection rates, deaths hit 131 within 28 days of a positive test on Tuesday, the highest number since March, while hospital admissions also continued to rise.

Public Health England has pointed to these numbers to illustrate that the pandemic is “not over yet,” and Yvonne Doyle, Medical Director of Public Health England, suggested that death and hospital admissions numbers are the result of the surge in recent weeks are because the delta variant spread quickly.

In a release Tuesday, US research firm Fundstrat highlighted that the UK’s delta surge peaked after around 45 days, similar to the 50-day mark in India, where the strain was first discovered.

JPMorgan analysts on Wednesday changed their previous projections for the virus’s effective reproductive number from 1.3 on July 19 to 1.6, a level where infections would have doubled every 10 days and hit 400,000 in the UK in just a few weeks .

England lifted its last layer of social restrictions on July 19, allowing nightclubs and other indoor entertainment venues to open and relax mandates for masks, mass gatherings and social distancing. Some restrictions still apply in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The move met with much controversy as the third wave of the virus continued to sweep the country, forcing Johnson and Treasury Secretary Rishi Sunak to self-isolate after Health Secretary Sajid Javid tested positive.

“It seems that the July 19th easing of restrictions did not result in a dramatic change in people’s behavior as we expected,” JPMorgan chief economist for Europe David Mackie said in a research note on Wednesday.

“Not much has changed over the past week according to Google mobility data, and anecdotal evidence suggests that compliance with NPIs like wearing masks is still widespread.”

While the tests were down about 15%, which could mean a decrease from about 6,000 new infections daily, Mackie said the combination of this and limited mobility could explain why the effective reproductive number has apparently fallen below one, causing the sharp decrease the absolute infection rate.

Other possible reasons were the end of the Euro 2020 soccer tournament, which saw large crowds gathering in pubs and stadiums, as well as the start of school holidays or the effects of seasonal weather.

‘Much, much milder’ than expected

Mackie argued that the spread of community that would be expected of those who contract the virus at football events was clearly evident in the numbers, while seasonality and school holidays were not responsible for the dramatic extent of the decline.

“If the surge in new infections was due to the spread of the Delta variant, such a sharp turnaround is difficult to explain without an equally dramatic cause,” said Mackie.

“The delta variant has not disappeared. The higher basic reproduction number of the delta variant should have a lasting effect on the effective reproduction number.”

JPMorgan still views the delta variant as a problem because of its high rate of reproduction and the relatively modest effectiveness of vaccines in preventing retransmission over time, and Mackie also acknowledged that delays in the system could mean the situation continues changes.

“But it’s hard to argue against the idea that the current delta wave in the UK is much, much milder than we expected,” he concluded.