England will have “put the bulk of the pandemic behind us” by October, a leading scientific adviser said yesterday after the number of new coronavirus cases fell for a sixth day in a row.
Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said that while caution was still necessary the vaccine rollout had “fundamentally changed” the threat posed by Covid-19.
“The effect of vaccines is hugely reducing the risk of hospitalisations and death, and I’m positive that by late September or October time we will be looking back at most of the pandemic,” he told Today on BBC Radio 4.
“We will have Covid with us, we will still have people dying from Covid, but we’ll have put the bulk of the pandemic behind us.”
Ferguson added that it was “too early to tell” what effect the unlocking would have, saying: “We need to remain cautious, especially with the potential increase in contact rates again as the weather becomes less fine and schools return.”
There were 24,950 positive cases in the UK yesterday, a decrease of 15,000 from 39,950 last Monday and down from 54,000 on July 17. One model shows the R number at below 1, suggesting that the pandemic is shrinking.
Boris Johnson and health officials were still urging caution, particularly as the impact of lifting legal limits on social contact in England last Monday has not yet been reflected in the data.
England and Wales had 218 deaths linked to Covid in the week to July 16, according to analysis of death certificates by the Office for National Statistics, up 19 per cent on the previous week. It is the highest total since 260 deaths in the week to April 23.
Dr Christopher Jewell, of Lancaster University, an epidemiologist who sits on the government’s Spi-M panel of advisers, said: “We will know more as the week unfolds, but certainly our current model-based estimates have gone from R [being roughly] one three days ago to R being less than one today.”
“The fall in cases is slightly perplexing . . . I suspect that it has something to do with schools breaking up and contact patterns changing. We’d noticed a downturn in Scottish cases compared to elsewhere previously [Scotland breaks up and goes back earlier than England], which may support this hypothesis.”
He also said, however, that the figures may be due to issues with the data, saying that people “may be less inclined to get tested if they have summer holidays booked” and that there may be disruptions in the sending out of tests or a “data glitch”.
One professor described previous warnings that Britain could have more than 100,000 new infections per day over the summer as a “substantial overestimate”. Paul Hunter, of the University of East Anglia, said the fall in cases was likely to be linked to Euro 2020, when lots of people may have caught the virus after coming together to watch games in large groups.
He said: “A lot of people might be disgusted by me saying this, but ultimately the Euros might turn out to be one of the things that make the rest of the summer less stressful, as we’ve effectively immunised a lot more younger people who wouldn’t otherwise have come for or been available for a vaccine. But I would stress that I would never suggest that as a control strategy in advance.”
Some models had predicted that a peak to the third wave would occur at this time.
Karl Friston, a professor of imaging neuroscience at University College London who looks after modelling on the “independent Sage” group, said: “This kind of modelling predicts the current resurgence of infections will peak around now, with no further surges until winter.”
He said that it was important to consider “how we prepare effectively for a winter resurgence” and said: “It may be that people have been over-interpreting the worst-case scenario modelling … that suggested 100,000 cases per day over the summer.”
Fourteen deaths were reported yesterday, compared with 28 on Sunday. The number of people being admitted to hospital, which typically lags behind infections, continues to rise.
The number of Covid patients recorded in English hospitals exceeded 5,000 for the first time since March 18 yesterday, reaching 5,055. Epidemiologists have said that they expect to see the number of hospital cases owing to Covid-19 “plateau” this week.
A No 10 spokesman said: “The prime minister doesn’t think we’re out of the woods yet and has stressed many times before that the pandemic isn’t over”, adding that lifting restrictions would have an “impact on case numbers”.
Yvonne Doyle, medical director of Public Health England, said: “It is too early to be sure about cases falling and the next few weeks will give us a better sense of whether this is an indication of a longer-term decline, particularly following the lifting of restrictions.” She urged people to get both vaccine doses, meet outside where possible and isolate if told to.
NHS leaders have also warned that the health service is under as much strain as it was at the height of the pandemic in January. NHS Providers has written to the prime minister, chancellor, health secretary and chief executive of NHS England, setting out pressures, including record waiting lists, record levels of demand in A&E and growing Covid-19 admissions.
Experts are cautious over the falling figures, saying that the good weather may have led more people to socialise outdoors. The closure of school year-group “bubbles” and the so-called pingdemic of warnings from the NHS app may have led more people to isolate.
Stephen Griffin of the University of Leeds school of medicine said: “While this appears to be good news, I would be surprised if we are likely to see a continuation of this decline.”
James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute at Oxford University, said: “I hope these testing numbers, which show such a rapid drop in infections, are an accurate reflection of reality.”