UK Covid cases are now falling rapidly despite the easing of lockdowns, and it’s surprising the experts

Health, Fitness & Food

People dancing at Egg London nightclub in the early hours of July 19, 2021 in London, England.
Rob Pinney | Getty Images

LONDON — Covid-19 cases in the U.K. fell for the seventh day in a row on Tuesday to 23,511 from 46,588 a week prior, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson has urged the public to remain cautious.

Speaking to LBC radio on Wednesday, Johnson said it was important to avoid jumping to conclusions and remember that “the virus is still out there.”

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

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

Public Health England has pointed to these figures to illustrate that the pandemic is “not over yet,” and Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England, suggested that the death and hospitalization figures are the result of the spike seen in recent weeks, as the delta variant spread rapidly.

In a note Tuesday, U.S. research firm Fundstrat highlighted that the U.K.’s delta surge peaked after around 45 days, similar to the 50-day mark seen in India, where the strain was first detected.

JPMorgan analysts on Wednesday altered their previous projections for the effective reproduction number of the virus to rise from 1.3 on July 19 to 1.6, a level that would have seen infections doubling every 10 days and reaching 400,000 in the U.K. within a matter of weeks.

England removed its last layer of social restrictions on July 19, allowing nightclubs and other indoor entertainment venues to open and relaxing mandates on masks, mass gathering events and social distancing. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland still have some restrictions in place.

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

“It appears that the easing of restrictions on July 19 did not lead to a dramatic shift in people’s behavior, as we had expected,” JPMorgan Chief European Economist David Mackie said in a research note Wednesday.

“According to the Google mobility data nothing much has changed in the past week, and anecdotal evidence suggests that adherence to NPIs such as mask wearing is still widespread.”

While testing has fallen by around 15%, which could account for a decline of around 6,000 daily new infections, Mackie said the combination of this and limited mobility could explain why the effective reproduction number has apparently fallen below one, facilitating the sharp fall in the absolute level of infections.

Other possible reasons put forward have included the end of the Euro 2020 soccer tournament, which had seen large crowds gathering in pubs and stadiums, along with the start of the school vacation or the impact of seasonal weather.

‘Much, much milder’ than anticipated

Mackie argued that the community spread that would be expected from those contracting the virus at soccer-related events has clearly transpired in the figures, while seasonality and school vacations do not account for the dramatic scale of the decline.

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

“The Delta variant has not gone away. The higher basic reproduction number of the Delta variant should have a persistent effect on the effective reproduction number.”

JPMorgan still sees the delta variant as a problem over time due to its high reproduction rate and the relatively modest efficacy of vaccines in preventing onward transmission, and Mackie also acknowledged that lags in the system could mean the situation continues to change.

“But, it is hard to argue against the idea that the current Delta wave in the U.K. is turning out to be much, much milder than we anticipated,” he concluded.

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