Today’s big question

Is the UK just two weeks from Covid recovery amid vaccine rollout success?

Britain ‘past the peak’ of infections wave as protection starts kicking in for millions of jab recipients

The UK’s rapid rollout of vaccines marks a major victory in the battle against Covid, but only the results of that campaign will determine when normal life can resume.

England’s Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty told press at the government’s briefing last night that Britain is “past the peak” of the latest wave of infections. “Provided people continue to follow the guidelines, we’re on a downward slope of cases, hospitalisations and deaths in all four nations,” he added.

Indeed, a “dramatic recovery” from Covid could be just two weeks off, says The Times’ science editor Tom Whipple, who points out that the full impact of the vaccine rollout has yet to be felt, owing to the time lag before the protective effects of the jabs kick in.

‘Darkest after the dawn’

The UK had administered 10.52 million coronavirus vaccines as of Wednesday morning, according to latest tracking from Oxford University - meaning that 15.5 per 100 people have received at least one dose. The speedy rollout puts the UK second in the global race to inoculate populations, behind Israel. 

Yet despite that success, Covid case rates in the UK spiralled throughout January, with more than 900 people with the virus dying every day during the first two weeks of 2021.

“The darkest hour, according to the adage, comes just before dawn,” says The Time’s Whipple. “The strange thing about the pandemic, though, is that in a sense the darkest hour comes after the dawn.”

Boris Johnson’s pledge at the start of the year to vaccinate at least 13 million people by mid-February triggered speculation that the UK was “seven weeks from safety”

Now, the Covid-19 Actuaries Response Group is predicting that “in the next fortnight something dramatic should happen... protection kicking in for more than five million of the most vulnerable people”, Whipple says.

In an article for The Spectator in mid-January, the group’s John Roberts said that based on their modelling, a 15% reduction in Covid cases could be reasonably expected by mid-March, along with a 60% fall in hospital admissions and an 88% drop in coronavirus deaths. 

Whipple reports that “at present, they calculate, there are about 10% fewer deaths than we would be seeing otherwise”.

 And within two weeks, he continues, “deaths should plunge and keep plunging until - by the middle of next month - they are 80% below where they would otherwise have been”.

Oxford boost

A newly published study in The Lancet that suggests that a single dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine reduces Covid transmission by 67% among jab recipients has bolstered hopes of an end to lockdowns.

The Oxford University research found that the first dose of the vaccine was 76% effective from day 22 to day 90 after being administered. The data “supports the government’s strategy that rolling out first doses - with a second dose after three months - is effective at reducing disease”, Sky News says. 

However, even if cases in the UK begin to fall, anyone anticipating a rapid return to everyday life is likely to be disappointed.

Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told The Telegraph today that a “continual decline in community cases” was “the most important measure” in determining when to end the ongoing shutdown.

Striking an equally downbeat note, Whipple adds that “counterintuitively, in two weeks’ time hospitals may still be under severe strain”.

“People being treated in intensive care units are slightly younger, drawn from those who either will not have received a vaccine in the first phase, or for whom the protection will, by March, have come too late,” he continues.

So “there may still be pressure to stay at home - not so much to save lives as to protect the NHS”.

Yet “even so, at last everything is moving in the right direction,” Whipple concludes. “When the light of dawn comes, it might even be a little bit dazzling.”

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