Will UK be hit by an 'exit wave' of Covid as lockdown is lifted?

Britain could be hit by an ‘exit wave’ of coronavirus cases as lockdown ends but there WON’T be a huge surge in deaths, insist experts after SAGE modellers forecast a final spike of more than 1,000 deaths a day

  • Scientists told MailOnline there was ‘no doubt infections will rise’ when pubs open and people start mixing
  • But said vaccines have ‘solved the problem of serious disease’, so hospital and death rates should stay low
  • Came after bleak modelling by Government’s scientists suggested there could be a final peak of 1,000 deaths

Britain could be hit with an ‘exit wave’ of Covid when lockdown is lifted but it’s unlikely to lead to an uncontrollable spike in hospital admissions or deaths, experts insisted today despite the predictions of a SAGE model released last week.

Scientists told MailOnline that while there was ‘no doubt infections will rise’ when pubs and restaurants reopen and people start mixing again, the vaccines had ‘solved the problem of serious disease’. 

They said that on top of the jab effect, the warm summer months will also curb transmission and stop huge spikes from spilling into the small number of vulnerable people who haven’t been jabbed or for whom the vaccines don’t work.

The comments came after bleak modelling by Government scientists suggested last week there could be a final peak of more than 1,000 deaths a day later in the year even with the immunisation programme steaming ahead.

Warwick University researchers, who made the projection, claimed the more infectious Kent variant would continue to spread in high numbers when lockdowns are eased, posing a constant threat to the elderly and ill –even with vaccines that cut transmission by 60 per cent, as the Pfizer and AstraZeneca jabs do. 

The modelling team, which feeds into the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), has since admitted its estimates were too pessimistic and underestimated how effective the jabs would be at preventing hospitalisation and death.

Reacting to their findings, Professor Keith Neal, an epidemiologist at Nottingham University, told MailOnline: ‘That model is so wrong and it just shows you what’s wrong with models in general.’

He said it was inevitable cases will go up when lockdown is lifted but insisted people should ‘stop caring about cases and start thinking about people getting ill or dying’, problems which he claimed the vaccines had solved.

Professor Gabriel Scally, a public health expert at the University of Bristol, told MailOnline that fresh breezy air and warm temperatures in summer were going to give the UK’s Covid situation another ‘fantastic advantage’. The virus finds it more difficult to spread outside and hot air reduces the time it can survive after being sneezed or coughed into the environment.

He pointed out that last year Covid deaths remained in double digits for four months of summer, without the help of vaccines. Professor Scally said the Warwick forecasts were ‘inconceivable’ unless a new variant that can duck vaccines becomes widespread.  

Modelling by Warwick University, which feeds into SAGE, suggested there could have been an extraordinary 1,750 daily Covid deaths if Britain had lifted the majority of lockdown curbs and reverted to the rule of six and 10pm curfew in February (left). The modelling, published on March 18, suggested daily fatalities could hover at around 200 under Boris’ current lockdown plan (right). The purple line is what the researchers predict the UK’s epidemic will look like, because the vaccines have been shown to cut transmission by 60 per cent

Warwick also modelled what would happen to deaths if all curbs were gradually lifted by this summer (left) or in autumn (right). Both scenarios would result in a large winter peak, according to the calculations. Lifting all curbs by July could lead to 1,500 daily deaths at the peak, while lifting them by October could result in more than 1,000. Warwick’s Dr Sam Moore, co-author of the study, has since admitted the projections were too pessimistic. He told The Telegraph: ‘Since we conducted this study, new evidence suggests there may be a higher level of protection against severe disease offered by both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines than the level we assumed.’

But evidence from Israel, the only country jabbing faster than Britain, shows that cases continued to plummet after came out of lockdown a month ago (orange). When Israel opened up it had roughly 50 per cent of its population vaccinated, the same stage Britain is at now. Shown in blue is the country’s infection rate after reopening from its previous shutdown last year, before the vaccines were available

Professor Neal told MailOnline: ‘There’s no doubt that when people start mixing, cases will go up. But vaccines have solved the serious disease problem. We shouldn’t care about cases. 

‘We think the country had about a million students catching Covid in the autumn last year and you’ll struggle to find a single one who was admitted to hospital let alone died.

An NHS trust fears it could face a huge Covid surge this summer — and is preparing to treat as many infected patients as it did last April. 

Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells, which was hit hard in the second wave, expects up to 100 beds to be occupied by coronavirus patients in mid-June under a ‘reasonably optimistic’ scenario.

But it warns this could double to 200 beds — more than a quarter of those available — if vaccine uptake is poor, hampered by supply issues or affected by new variants.  

The trust, which runs two hospitals, saw 90 beds occupied by Covid patients in the peak of the first wave last spring.

But this spiralled to more than 300 during the darkest days of the second wave, after the more infectious Kent variant triggered a devastating outbreak.

The forecasts were based on modelling by local health chiefs. But NHS sources said similar plans made at other trusts were based on gloomy predictions from SAGE that there could be a third wave of hospitalisations later this year.

Experts have poked holes in SAGE’s forecasting, pointing out that coronaviruses are seasonal and spreads better in the winter. 

‘So we need to care less about infections and start focusing on monitoring hospital admissions and deaths. The fear is that once lots of young people get infected that it spreads to vulnerable populations but we’re not sure that will happen.

‘We opened up last year and didn’t see the same splurge [as is suggested in Warwick’s modelling].’

Asked about how realistic Warwick’s forecasts were, Professor Scally added: ‘That’s inconceivable unless we see the worst possible circumstance, where the virus is able to run free and infect huge numbers of people with moderate risk.

‘I suppose if it circulates really widely then there might be the sort of numbers they suggest but that’s the most pessimistic picture… summer and being outdoors also has a fantastic advantage.’

He added that as long as a new variant doesn’t become widespread then ‘we probably won’t have it as bad as that [up to 1,000 deaths a day]’.

But he warned: ‘The Government is not helping – we still don’t have a good Test and Trace programme and we’re still not quarantining arrivals, so there will be the danger of variants.’

Dr Sam Moore, who co-authored the Warwick study, has since admitted his team’s calculations underestimated the jabs’ effect on severe disease.

Latest Public Health England analysis of the real-world impact of the jabs on Britain’s crisis has suggested they cut hospital admissions and deaths by more than 90 per cent after two doses, and by 85 and 80 per cent, respectively, after a single injection.

Dr Moore told The Telegraph last Friday: ‘Since we conducted this study, new evidence suggests there may be a higher level of protection against severe disease offered by both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccines than the level we assumed.

‘This may reduce the size of future hospital admissions and deaths we estimated, making future waves more manageable for the health service.’

But despite the admission from Dr Moore, some NHS bosses are still preparing for worst possible outcomes this summer. 

The NHS trust in Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells, in Kent, which was hit hard in the second wave, expects up to 100 beds to be occupied by coronavirus patients in mid-June under a ‘reasonably optimistic’ scenario.

But it warned this could double to 200 beds — more than a quarter of those available — if vaccine uptake is poor, hampered by supply issues or affected by new variants.  

The trust, which runs two hospitals, saw 90 beds occupied by Covid patients in the peak of the first wave last spring.

But this spiralled to more than 300 during the darkest days of the second wave, after the more infectious Kent variant triggered a devastating outbreak.

The forecasts were based on modelling by local health chiefs. But NHS sources said similar plans made at other trusts were based on gloomy predictions from SAGE that there could be a third wave of hospitalisations later this year. 

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