UK experts fear up to 120,000 Covid-19 deaths this winter

Preparations to avoid second wave worst-case scenario in NHS hospitals ‘must start now’

Britain must start “intense preparations” for a second wave of coronavirus that has the potential to kill as many as 120,000 hospital patients in a worst case scenario, experts have warned.

Senior doctors and scientists convened by the Academy of Medical Sciences said on Tuesday that, without urgent action, a resurgence of cases this winter could overwhelm the NHS when services are already stretched because of flu and other seasonal pressures.

The experts were commissioned by Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, to model a “reasonable worst case scenario” for Covid-19 this winter. Their report, which has been shared with ministers and local health authorities, calls for immediate efforts to prepare for a second wave.

Compiled by 37 experts, the report stresses the worst case scenario is not a prediction of what is likely to happen, but a description of how the outbreak may evolve if infections are allowed to surge and little is done to prepare the NHS and social care services.

“The modelling suggests that deaths could be higher with a new wave of Covid-19 this winter, but the risk of this happening could be reduced if we take action immediately,” said Stephen Holgate, chair of the expert group and professor of immunopharmacology at the University of Southampton.

“With relatively low numbers of Covid-19 cases at the moment, this is a critical window of opportunity to help us prepare for the worst that winter can throw at us.”

The virus may bounce back in the winter as the weather and dark evenings force people to spend more time indoors. In the summer, it is easier to keep homes and offices ventilated with open windows which allow breezes to replenish stale air.

The reasonable worst case scenario assumes that the R value, the average number of people an infected person passes the disease on to, roughly doubles from around 0.9 in England today to 1.7 across the UK in September.

The modelling suggests hospital admissions and deaths would peak in January and February 2021 with a similar number of deaths as in the first wave.

The modelling excludes deaths in care homes and the community, assumes no government intervention to prevent transmission, and does not factor in the use of dexamethasone, a drug recently shown to save lives in intensive care units.

Further modelling in the report shows less severe second waves might lead to 1,300 or 75,000 deaths between September 2020 and June 2021 if the R value rises to 1.1 or 1.5 respectively.

The report calls for a major public information campaign in the autumn to encourage people to prevent the virus from spreading. Hospitals and care homes will need better supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), widespread testing capacity and Covid-19-free zones.

Because a second wave may coincide with the flu season, the experts said it was crucial that health and care workers, along with school children and all vulnerable individuals, received the flu vaccine.

The report came as Matt Hancock, the health secretary, claimed the government had procured enough vaccine to roll out the “biggest flu vaccination programme in history”.

The NHS test and trace system must be ramped up in time for the winter, Holgate said, as more people will be falling ill with infections that resemble Covid-19, and near real-time surveillance should be in place to spot local outbreaks.

“We do need to take this threat of a new wave of Covid-19 very seriously but, if we prepare now, there is a lot we can do to minimise the risk,” he said.

Dame Anne Johnson, a co-author of the report and professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London, said there was a need for a powerful public information campaign that targeted specific communities as well as the nation as a whole.

“Everybody needs to realise that Covid-19 hasn’t gone away, and therefore everybody can help reduce transmission by social distancing, by the wearing of face coverings as a social norm, by good respiratory and hand hygiene and the right level of heating and ventilation in our homes,” she said.

Every winter hospitals experience a surge in patients as seasonal flu sweeps through the population, people have more falls on icy pavements, and the cold weather exacerbates health problems such as asthma, heart disease and lung conditions. “This winter we have to factor in the likelihood of another wave of coronavirus infections and the ongoing impacts of the first wave. We have to be prepared that we might also experience a flu epidemic this year,” Johnson said.

“Faced with these potential challenges, and after an already tough year, it would be easy to feel hopeless and powerless,” she added. “But this report shows that we can act now to change things for the better. We need to minimise coronavirus and flu transmission everywhere, and especially in hospitals and care homes. We need to get our health and social care, and the track, trace and isolate programme, ready for winter. This can be done, but it must be done now.”

Contributor

Ian Sample Science editor

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
UK at 'critical point' over Covid-19, top scientists to tell public
Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty to make televised appeal ahead of ‘challenging winter’

Heather Stewart and Josh Halliday

20, Sep, 2020 @9:00 PM

Article image
Secrecy has harmed UK government's response to Covid-19 crisis, says top scientist
Exclusive: Sir Paul Nurse says lack of openness fuelled poor decisions and put public trust at risk

Ian Sample Science editor

02, Aug, 2020 @8:11 PM

Article image
10% of England's population could be tested for Covid-19 every week
Exclusive: NHS test and trace asks public health directors to sign up to rapid saliva testing plan

Robert Booth Social affairs correspondent

28, Oct, 2020 @7:09 PM

Article image
PM to give NHS extra £3bn to prepare for winter coronavirus
Funds expected to be used to maintain Nightingale hospitals and increase testing in England

Heather Stewart and Peter Walker

16, Jul, 2020 @9:30 PM

Article image
Attendees of Sage meetings worried by presence of Cummings
Scientists on UK government’s coronavirus advisory group say Dominic Cummings was an active participant

Felicity Lawrence, Severin Carrell , David Pegg

26, Apr, 2020 @12:00 PM

Article image
India variant will be dominant UK Covid strain ‘in next few days’
Scientists’ warning comes as government comes under pressure to explain border policy

Peter Walker, Nicola Davis and Jessica Elgot

17, May, 2021 @6:59 PM

Article image
Covid coughing study suggests NHS staff at far greater risk than thought
Health service urged to rethink safety for frontline staff and provide better PPE and ventilation

Linda Geddes

03, Feb, 2021 @6:49 PM

Article image
UK could have 50,000 Covid cases a day by mid-October, say scientific advisers
Country told it is on course for 200 deaths a day and to prepare for six months of restrictions

Jessica Elgot and Simon Murphy

21, Sep, 2020 @1:57 PM

Article image
UK coronavirus: alert level to be raised from 3 to 4; Northern Ireland bans mixing indoors
Matt Hancock announces childcare exemption to local lockdowns in England; UK cases rise by 4,368, second highest daily total since early May

Andrew Sparrow

21, Sep, 2020 @5:37 PM

Article image
Medical experts v anti-vaxxers: the Covid-19 information battle
Scientists face potential struggle to convince people of vaccine safety as celebrities join misinformation chorus

Ben Quinn and Niamh McIntyre

19, Sep, 2020 @5:00 AM