'The seasons are against us': what we learned from UK's top Covid scientists

Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty’s briefing predicted an autumn of rising deaths and difficult lockdown choices

The UK government’s most senior scientists, England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, and the chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, have given a televised briefing about the recent increases in coronavirus cases, and what to expect – unusually, doing so without a politician there as well. Here is what we learned.

Where are we now?

What they said: With the number of UK cases rising above 3,000 a day and towards 4,000, Vallance said infections seemed to be doubling about once every seven days. Whitty said there were “significant rates of transmission” in parts of the UK. The pair displayed a graph showing that while the majority of cases remain among younger people, they are also rising sharply in older demographics. Hospital admissions remain fairly low, below 200 a day, but are also on the rise. Vallance added that nationally about 8% of people could have antibodies, having had Covid-19, rising to as many as 17% in London.

A slide from Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty’s Covid-19 briefing showing cases by age group.
A slide from Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty’s Covid-19 briefing showing cases by age group. Photograph: Sky News

The implications: As Vallance and Whitty explained, the UK’s trajectory appeared to be a slightly delayed version of that seen in countries such as Spain – meaning we should also expect more Covid-19 cases in older people, followed by more hospitalisation and deaths. The antibody level also means herd immunity is some way off.

What comes next?

What they said: Vallance was clear about the implications – if the infection rate is not slowed, the UK could be experiencing about 50,000 new Covid cases a day by mid-October, and about 200 deaths per day a month after that. He said: “The challenge therefore is to make sure the doubling time does not stay at seven days.” Whitty echoed the point, saying the rapid recent increase in Covid inpatient numbers, which were also doubling roughly once every seven days, augured the possibility of a swift rise in the number of deaths.

A slide from the briefing showing what would happen if cases doubled every week.
A slide from the briefing showing what would happen if cases doubled every week. Photograph: Sky News

The implications: They are not good, and the scientists effectively spelled them out, with Whitty noting that with the advance of autumn, “the seasons are against us” from the point of view of combating a respiratory illness. He said: “So we should see this as a six-month problem that we have to deal with collectively, it’s not indefinite.”

What can be done?

What they said: This element of fighting a pandemic is not the responsibility of scientists but, nonetheless, there were clear hints of new restrictions to come. Whitty noted that as well as reducing individual risk, for example by hand-washing and mask use, “we have to break unnecessary links between households because that is the way in which this virus is transmitted”.

The implications: We will hear more on this later in the week, probably from Boris Johnson. Whitty noted the possibility of less contact both at workplaces and social situations, which could mean a return to mass home working, and bad news for the hospitality industry. What happens remains to be seen, not least as ministers have yet to even decide.

Impact on the economy

What they said: The government’s scientists have generally stayed out of the battle over the impact of the Covid-created economic downturn, but Whitty did note this as an impact: “If we go too far the other way, then we can cause damage to the economy which can feed through to unemployment, to poverty, to deprivation – all of which have long-term health effects.” Whitty is an epidemiologist, the science of examining large-scale health consequences, so such calculations are nothing new for him, but it is a key consideration.

The implications: Expect a significant, if behind-the-scenes battle in the coming days over the balance between curbing infection rates and harming the economy. A number of backbench Conservative MPs are also likely to oppose distancing measures they see as too restrictive.

A vaccine

What they said: Vallance was cautiously optimistic over this, saying it remained possible that a vaccine “could be available before the end of the year in small amounts for certain groups” – while adding that this happening in the first half of 2021 was more likely.

The implications: In effect, this is little changed from the message over some months – the signs are good, but don’t bet the mortgage on a vaccine this year, let alone in sufficient quantities to restore everyday life.


Peter Walker Political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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