Coronavirus second wave could see 120,000 deaths this winter, say scientists

14 July 2020, 00:17 | Updated: 14 July 2020, 01:08

A second wave of coronavirus infections could lead to 120,000 deaths
A second wave of coronavirus infections could lead to 120,000 deaths. Picture: PA
Nick Hardinges

By Nick Hardinges

A second wave of coronavirus infections this winter could lead to 120,000 hospital deaths in a "reasonable worst-case scenario," scientists advising the Government have warned.

Action must be taken now to limit a second peak of Covid-19 cases, according to a new report commissioned by the Government's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance.

The report from the Academy of Medical Sciences warns that hospitals could be facing 120,000 coronavirus-related deaths between September and next June on top of their usual winter demands, such as flu.

Although there is uncertainty surrounding the future evolution of Covid-19 in the UK, the research - written by 37 scientists and academics - shows a "reasonable worst-case scenario" would see the R rate rise to 1.7 from September.

The R figure represents the number of people an infected person on average is expected to pass the disease on to.

Sir Patrick and his team's modelling suggests there could be a peak in hospital admissions and deaths in January and February 2021 that is similar to or worse than the first wave earlier this year.

It does not include deaths in the community or care homes.

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Government intervention to reduce the transmission rate is not taken into account in the figures, or the use of the drug dexamethasone in intensive care units, which has been proven to cut deaths.

Professor Stephen Holgate, a Medical Research Council clinical professor of immunopharmacology who led the study, said: "This is not a prediction, but it is a possibility.

"The modelling suggests that deaths could be higher with a new wave of Covid-19 this winter, but the risk of this happening could be reduced if we take action immediately.

"With relatively low numbers of Covid-19 cases at the moment, this is a critical window of opportunity to help us prepare for the worst that winter can throw at us."

Prof Holgate called for a rollout of flu vaccinations for the vulnerable, plus health and social care workers, before the winter sets in.

He also said the NHS Test and Trace must be "upscaled in the winter", adding more people will need to be tested as winter illnesses can often have similar symptoms to Covid-19.

The professor also urged the Government to implement a "rapid system of monitoring" in the UK to stop local outbreaks when they occur.

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The team also looked at less serious scenarios of what may happen, with an R rate of 1.1 leading to 1,300 hospital deaths between September and June.

They also modelled an R of 1.5, which would lead to 74,800 hospital deaths.

Professor Azra Ghani, chairwoman in infectious disease epidemiology at Imperial College London - who worked on the study, said many things could push the R up to 1.7.

She said: "We are looking at what would be the worst that would happen, such as if there was a further relaxing of interventions, more contacts taking place, schools may be a factor, people going back to work and that sort of thing.

"Those things create more contacts, plus people will be indoors more and more people will want to meet up indoors."

The professor said the virus was known to spread more easily indoors "and, of course, during the winter, we spend far more time indoors than we do during the summer."

Prof Ghani added: "In addition, we're less likely to have our windows open, doors tend to be closed to keep out the cold, and that will again enhance transmission.

"It's also possible that the virus itself could survive for longer in colder conditions."

Dame Anne Johnson, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at University College London and vice president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said there was a need for a "powerful public information campaign" in the run-up to winter.

"Everybody needs to realise that Covid-19 hasn't gone away, and therefore everybody can help reduce transmission by social distancing, by the wearing of face coverings as a social norm, by good respiratory and hand hygiene and the right level of heating and ventilation in our homes," she said.

Dame Anne also said it was important people got tested if they had symptoms, and that they self-isolated along with their households.

"Every winter we see an increase in the number of people admitted to hospital and in the number of people dying in the UK," she added.

"This is due to a combination of seasonal infections such as flu, and the effects of colder weather, for example, on heart and lung conditions. This winter we have to factor in the likelihood of another wave of coronavirus infections and the ongoing impacts of the first wave.

"We have to be prepared that we might also experience a flu epidemic this year. Faced with these potential challenges, and after an already tough year, it would be easy to feel hopeless and powerless. But this report shows that we can act now to change things for the better.

"We need to minimise coronavirus and flu transmission everywhere, and especially in hospitals and care homes. We need to get our health and social care, and the track, trace and isolate programme ready for winter. This can be done, but it must be done now."

The report said NHS and social care facilities must continue with 'Covid-19 zones' and 'Covid-19-free zones', and ensure there is adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff, alongside testing and infection control measures.

It comes after Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the National Pharmacy Association's conference on Monday that the Government had procured enough flu vaccine to roll out the "biggest flu vaccine programme in history."

A government spokesman said: "The modelling in this report represents a worst-case scenario based on no government action, and makes clear this isn't a prediction.

"Thanks to the nation's collective efforts, the virus is being brought under control. However, we remain vigilant and the Government will ensure the necessary resources are in place to avoid a second peak that would overwhelm our NHS.

"This includes extensive winter planning to protect the NHS and care sector, further expanding our large-scale testing capacity, contacting thousands through NHS Test and Trace, working intensively on new treatments, and delivering billions of items of PPE to protect our health and social care workers."

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