The third wave of Covid-19 cases in the UK has already began, according to government advisers – who said it was possible strict lockdown curbs would have to reintroduced at some point this year.
It comes as a new study commissioned by the government found Covid infections have increased 50 per cent since the start of May – as the country struggles to combat the rise of the highly-transmissible Delta variant first detected in India.
“We’re at the beginning of [the third wave] now,” said Professor Neil Ferguson, the Imperial epidemiologist dubbed “Professor Lockdown” by the tabloid press.
Professor Graham Medley – who chairs the SPI-M modelling sub-group of the government’s Sage panel – said it was “not impossible” restrictions would have to be reintroduced.
“I find it hard to believe that we’d have to go backwards from where we are,” said Prof Medley. “But it’s not impossible that at some point the government will say, ‘Actually this number of hospitalisations is beyond what we want to live with’ … and put in place restrictions.”
An Imperial College London study published on Thursday showed a “rapid switch” between the Alpha variant first detected in Kent and the Delta variant in recent weeks – with the latter now accounting for up to 90 per cent of all Covid cases.
Prof Ferguson, who also sits on the SPI-M modelling sub-group, said the Delta variant posed a “higher risk of hospitalisations” – but said it was still unclear how deadly a third wave of infections might be.
The epidemiologist stressed that the SPI-M team does not yet have enough data to make firm predictions, but he said he would expect at least 100 deaths a day from Covid at the peak of the UK’s third wave.
Prof Ferguson also suggested Britain could experience a similar number of Covid deaths – around 1,200 a day – as seen during January’s winter peak in a worst-case scenario.
“The uncertainty spans the range of having a third wave which maybe is 100 [or] 200 deaths a day, at peak, to something which is at the scale of what we went through in January,” Prof Ferguson told a media briefing on Thursday.
“I’m very much hoping we won’t need to reverse course [on the easing of restrictions] – and I suspect we won’t. We will inevitably see cases and hospitalisations rise. But the key is [how] manageable the level is.”
Prof Ferguson said he almost everyone over the age of 40 in the UK would have had their second dose of the vaccine before the scheduled reopening on 19 July. “The next four weeks will make a substantial difference.”
All over-18s in England are to be invited to receive Covid jabs from Friday, health secretary Matt Hancock announced on Thursday.
The success of the vaccine roll-out means the UK is “much better position than much of the rest of the world”, said Prof Ferguson.
The expert said widespread vaccination should mean the country being able to live with recurring Covid variants without the need for strict curbs on movement.
“Once we have got two doses into everyone and immunity is sufficiently high, we shouldn’t need to continue to social distancing or ventilation measures,” he said.
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