There is cautious optimism in the Government and among its scientific advisers that with the current measures in place, the NHS should be able to cope with the peak of the coronavirus outbreak in Britain.
– Stay at home. It’s working –
Dr Neil Ferguson of Imperial College London, whose modelling has been central to Government decision making, told MPs yesterday that while there might be some individual spots of high pressure, at a national level the NHS would not exceed capacity.
He also said that the number of deaths may be below the “best case” 20,000 he outlined a few days ago, and that perhaps two-thirds of those deaths were likely to be of people who would have died this year of other causes.
This does not mean that the UK is out of the woods at all. While the peak in the number of cases is now expected in the next two to three weeks, one rather substantial question still hangs over the country (and the world): when can we get back to normal?
To answer that question, scientists need to know a lot more about the epidemic and the virus itself.
– The battle of the models –
Assuming the current models are correct, a best-case scenario for the coming months in the UK might look something like South Korea. With mass testing, contact tracing and isolation, life might be able to return to some kind of normality, but with a return to more stringent measures on a hair trigger.
As Dr Ferguson told MPs yesterday, it became clear early on that the UK did not have the testing capacity to take that route at the beginning of the outbreak, but it could do so in a few weeks.
But the key thing to know is how widespread the virus actually is. A study from Oxford University this week caused a stir by finding that Covid-19 might have arrived in the UK a month earlier than thought and that 50 per cent of the population could have it already.
That would match up with our report today that the UK’s patient zero could actually be a British tourist who returned from a skiing holiday with the virus back in January.
If correct, it would mean that the vast majority of cases are asymptomatic, with hospitalisation rates possibly as low as one in one thousand, and that herd immunity may actually already be close. If so, the lockdown could be short-lived.
Government scientists have not ruled out the modelling being correct.
Equally, a symptom-tracking app developed by scientists at King’s College London suggests that the infection level could be one in 10 at the moment. That’s higher than the current modelling being used, but nowhere near as high as the Oxford study found.
– Test, test, test and then test some more –
All of which is why testing is essential and why a new antibody test, which would show if someone has had and recovered from Covid-19, is being hailed as a game-changer.
Dr Chris Whitty, the Chief Medical Officer, was keen to downplay expectations that such tests are imminent and will soon be available for the general public. But that is the ultimate objective and it could be possible in a few weeks.
The Government has purchased 3.5 million of the tests, and they could, if they prove to be accurate and reliable, eventually be rolled out for online purchase and use at home.
But before that happens, there will be two priorities. One is to get the antibody test, as well as that for the virus, to frontline healthcare workers. The NHS needs as many staff available as possible, but is losing many to self-isolation. Getting those who are not ill or are immune back to work is crucial. After that, other key workers could be tested, and eventually the general population.
The next priority is to use the antibody tests for community testing, to interrogate the modelling and find out how widespread the virus has really been. Only then can scientists start to calculate how stringently lockdown measures will need to be enforced and for how long.
There are, of course, many other factors to take into account. For one, it’s not clear how long acquired immunity lasts for. If it’s short-lived, Covid-19 could become a seasonal problem.
Still, all of the above serves as a reminder of one key thing. While a vaccine against the coronavirus is clearly the way out of this nightmare, there’s another vital strand of the fight which can be won much sooner: the battle for information.