The UK is ‘on a knife edge’ in its coronavirus crisis and faces a very real threat of a second surge in the winter, one of the Government’s top advisers has warned.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the London-based research charity the Wellcome Trust, and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), said he was ‘worried’ about the prospect of the virus returning.
He said he expects the number of people getting diagnosed with the virus to rise in the next couple of weeks and into July.
Next Saturday, July 4, is expected to see the biggest loosening of lockdown rules since March in England as pubs reopen and people are allowed to mix with other households.
Sir Jeremy said the country faces a ‘very precarious situation’ and examples are already emerging of people flouting social distancing rules.
Crowds were pictured packed onto Bournemouth beach last week, the police have broken up raves and parties in London and Liverpool FC fans celebrating the team’s Premier League win have been partying in the streets against official advice.
The Wellcome Trust chief said it will be even harder to control a second spike in the winter when people struggle to distinguish Covid-19 from a cold or flu.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that people would have to think more carefully about going into work when they were sick because of the risk it could be coronavirus.
Sir Jeremy said: ‘In truth, the restrictions started to to be lifted towards the end of May, the beginning of June, around that bank holiday.
‘I would predict, I would guess, that we will start to see a few increases in cases towards the end of June or the first week of July.
‘We’re on a knife edge – it’s very precarious, the situation – particularly in England at the moment, and I would anticipate we would see an increase in new cases over the coming weeks.’
The Department of Health has diagnosed an average of 1,018 cases of Covid-19 per day over the last week, the lowest weekly average since the end of March.
But there are still believed to be tens thousands of people infected with the virus – the Office for National Statistics estimates around 51,000 at any given time.
The ONS this week warned that the decline in the number of people getting infected – which had been rapid since May – has now ‘levelled off’.
This means that the outbreak is not shrinking as fast as it was before and there’s a risk it could start to rise again.
This is likely because lockdown rules have loosened so significantly in the past six weeks, but it could be a sign of danger if numbers start to rise again.
The ONS, which based its estimate on only 14 positive tests from a sample of 24,256 people, said: ‘Modelling of the trend over time suggests that the decline in the number of people in England testing positive has levelled off in recent weeks.
‘These estimates suggest the percentage testing positive has clearly decreased over time since our first measurement on 26 April, and this downward trend has now flattened.’
Although the speed at which England’s outbreak is shrinking has slowed down – which would be expected as lockdown is lifted – Sir Jeremy agreed that it is ‘reasonable’ to continue loosening rules.
Doing so a month ago would have been too early, he said, and he still urged people to be ‘really cautious’.
He was particularly concerned about people being near others while indoors, admitting that being outside was lower risk.
He added: ‘There is no zero risk in any of this. We’re not at the stage where the virus has disappeared… It remains the same virus.’
Learning how to contain outbreaks at local levels could avoid a second national disaster like the one which hit the whole UK in March, he said.
The autumn and winter is likely to be when a real second wave emerged, Sir Jeremy said – he predicted it could start in October and November.
Accelerating this risk would be the fact that normal colds and flu will be circulating by then, and people will struggle to tell the difference between those and Covid-19.
The main symptoms of Covid-19 are a new cough or a fever (high temperature), according to the UK Government’s definition. The third is a changed or lost sense of smell or taste.
All three of these symptoms can be caused by flu and colds and people may end up self-isolating with colds or going into work with Covid-19 amid the confusion.
He said: ‘The really difficult thing for all us in September, October, is when we all get normal coughs and colds and children are back going to school and they get respiratory infections that are normal at that time of year: have we got the capacity to distinguish normal respiratory infections – influenza and others – from Covid-19?
‘Can we interrupt the chains of transmission immediately, within 48 hours, of new cases starting?
‘And there will be some disruption of that as people with coughs and colds come into work, come into school places, and people need to think through the consequences of that.
‘Through July and August, if we do things sensibly, we can prevent the national catastrophe that happened in March and April.
‘If we don’t – if we don’t have those core national infrastructures in place – then we will see a very nasty rebound in the winter.’