Covid: Should we be nervous about this winter? This is what the data shows

Ministers are optimistic about the Covid situation and there is 'no sign that they think we need to change the plan,' ITV News Deputy Political Editor Anushka Asthan says

Scientists who have spent the past 18 months advising government about Covid-19 are nervous about the winter months - with some thinking we need to be taking the situation more seriously.

One even described watching the press conference with Boris Johnson and the chief medical officer Chris Whitty, earlier in the week like this: “For the first time, it felt a bit like watching a Donald Trump presser,” he said.

“Where the president tells journalists, ‘everything is ok, relax’, while Anthony Fauci [a leading infectious disease expert in the US] eyeballs him nervously in the background.”

It is certainly true that some members of the Scientific Advisory Committee (Sage) that Mr Whitty chairs, are not as convinced as the Prime Minister that no additional measures are needed right now.

So, let’s look at some of the data - and see what there is to worry about when it comes to Covid-19 and what might help to reassure us.

Where we are now compared to this time last year

To understand the grim mood that some scientists are in, we first need to compare the situation now to this time last year, and we can do that using prevalence data.

This shows us just how much Covid there is in society.

The best source is the Office for National Statistics’ regular infection survey.

The most recent data for September 10, 2021 shows that by then, 1 in 70 people in England had coronavirus, with the situation slightly worse in Wales (1 in 65), and Northern Ireland (1 in 60), and significantly worse in Scotland (1 in 45).

In the equivalent survey on September 11, 2020, the prevalence in England was not even slightly comparable. Back then only 1 in 1,400 people had Covid in England. 

Estimated Covid levels within the community Credit: Office for National Statistics (ONS)

Just take that difference in by looking at this chart. 1 in 1,400 is so small - we can’t even fit enough people on the screen to fully represent it.

But the chart shows that by the end of the summer of 2021, there was at least 20 times as much Covid in society than the year before - following a summer without measures like the rule of six or even particularly strict isolation rules. 

Reacting to this data, when I presented it on ITV’s Peston, Sage member Professor John Edmunds said that in September last year, schools returning, universities opening and the shift away from home working had put upward pressure on Covid cases.

Prof Edmunds said these factors were a concern this year, especially with Covid prevalence so much higher.

Sage member Professor John Edmunds: 'If we look at Scotland, we can see around the time schools have opened there's been a fairly rapid increase in the number of cases'

He highlighted the initial “rapid” increase in cases in Scotland where schools opened earlier - pointing out, however, that the direction of travel there has now changed.

Why? Because of the big “countervailing force” that the vast majority of us are now vaccinated, he said.

How much of a difference is that making? 

Professor Oliver Johnson, a statistician at the University of Bristol, has shared data with ITV News that looks at the impact of vaccination.

First, he shows how deaths are rising right now to a seven-day average of 120 - pretty high when you consider that similar numbers last year had us heading towards lockdowns. 

UK deaths by date of occurrence 2021 Credit: Professor Oliver Johnson, Bristol University

But if we add the 2020 death figures to Professor Johnson’s charts you can see that back then, deaths were rising at a much steeper rate - doubling every 10 days, compared to every 39 now. 

Covid UK deaths by date of occurrence 2020 v 2021 Credit: Professor Oliver Johnson, Bristol University

That said, we all know that the vaccines, while hugely effective, are not perfect; with some double-jabbed folk contracting Covid (although at a much lower rate) and a few falling seriously ill and even dying. 

And as the Imperial immunologist Danny Altmann said to me: “Delta is an unforgiving foe” - worse than the Kent variant when it comes to spread. 

Plus, there is also a debate about the rate at which immunity wanes (which is a very complicated issue and one for another blog!) 

But on that, I have more reassurance to offer too, because this week the government announced plans to roll out booster jabs to the over-50s - and new data from Israel will be music to their ears.

This chart shows the number of people per 100,000 becoming seriously ill Covid patients. And you can see that it drops from 6.4 for the unvaccinated, to 1.62 for the double jabbed and then - almost six-fold again - to 0.28 when a third jab is given. 

Severely ill Covid patients by vaccination status in Israel Credit: @segal_eran

So, what does that all add up to?

Certainly, this is a worrying situation in which to be entering the winter, which is why some scientists I talk to think perhaps the government’s plan B - with mandatory masks, vaccine passports and encouragement to work from home once again - should really be plan A. 

But ministers, who are briefed on the data every day and are thinking about economic as well as health impact, are still feeling fairly comfortable with where we are now - not least because cases (not deaths) have actually been falling over the past week

Sources insist they aren’t reading too much into it yet - but it’s hopeful at least. 

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