What might a third wave of coronavirus mean for the UK?
Scientists warn that ‘baseline measures’ will still be needed after lockdown is fully lifted
The lockdown easing steps planned for May and June risk unleashing a third wave of coronavirus as deadly as that which hit the UK over winter, government scientists have warned.
The newly published predictions from the outbreak modelling subgroup of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) put a dampener on Boris Johnson’s announcement last night that England’s roadmap out of the Covid-19 lockdown was on track.
The prime minister confirmed that hairdressers, gyms and non-essential shops, as well as outdoor areas of pubs and restaurants, can reopen as planned from 12 April.
But while the Sage team predict that this step is “highly unlikely to put unsustainable pressure on the NHS”, the experts are less optimistic about what may follow.
What the modellers found
England is expected to reopen indoor hospitality and allow holidays abroad from 17 May, with 21 June pencilled as the date to remove the remaining coronavirus restrictions.
However, while the nation is looking forward to the light at the end of the tunnel, a newly released summary of a Sage meeting on 31 March says the latest coronavirus modelling - from a range of UK institutions - “suggest that an epidemic resurgence (third wave) is highly likely”.
The scientists acknowledged that the timing, scale and shape of a third wave is uncertain, with much riding on how effective vaccines prove in protecting against infection and transmission, and also on the population’s future behavioural responses to the easing of lockdown.
The majority of scenarios modelled found that the peak of a potential third wave would be smaller than the one seen in January, but work by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine suggested a peak at the end of July or early August could result in hospitalisations on the same scale.
And while the experts cautioned that the findings were “preliminary” and made “pessimistic assumptions”, the London Evening Standard notes that scientists at the University of Warwick “also shared a similar conclusion”.
The “grim assessment” is based on calculations that show that cases might rise among unvaccinated people as well as a proportion of those vaccinated, because “the jabs do not offer 100% protection”, says the i news site.
Johnson has previously warned that the third wave of Covid infections currently sweeping across other European countries is likely to “wash up on our shores” - a major reason for his push for a speedy vaccine rollout.
But while the government is relying on vaccination and testing to “avert a brutal third wave”, some scientists think further precautions should be taken, reports The Guardian’s science editor Ian Sample.
“Ministers must strike a delicate balance if they are not to squander the hard-earned gains of both lockdown and vaccination, and risk the political embarrassment of going back into lockdown in the months ahead,” he writes.
The government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance told the Downing Street daily press conference yesterday that improved hand hygiene, regular testing and staying at home when ill were “likely to be important baseline measures” in the future.
The newly published Sage meeting report say another “voluntary measure” could include “mask wearing in certain situations”.
Some of the nation’s newspapers have responded with disappointment to the warnings that normality is still “some way off” (as Johnson put it yesterday). The Daily Mail’s front page today asks: “Call this freedom?”
And while several papers are celebrating next week’s new lockdown easing steps, The Daily Telegraph’s splash concludes: “No end in sight.”