For those who are urging the government to push ahead with easing of lockdown restrictions later this month, Tuesday’s announcement of ‘zero deaths’ in the UK will be cited as further proof of the necessity to end the delay.
Certainly, the country has come a long way since the new year Covid surge, when the daily number of infections reached a peak of more than 68,000, and the number of people in hospital would later rise to almost 40,000. Daily death tolls of more than 1,000 were common during the bleakest weeks of winter.
The vaccination programme, perhaps the only unqualified success of the entire pandemic, has changed the calculus again.
But we are already seeing echoes from the situation last summer.
The number of Covid patients in hospital plummeted to 700 or so, before an inexorable rise fuelled by an easing of restrictions and the spread of the Alpha variant, first found in Kent.
Now it is the Delta variant, first discovered in India, that is seeding itself across the country – and it is spreading fast, at a time when only 50% of the population has received a second jab.
The Covid dashboard may be flashing “zero deaths” today, but it is also flashing warning signals that there may be trouble ahead.
The number of Covid infections is always the first figure to rise. In previous waves, this has been followed by more hospitalisations – and then more deaths. It happens in this order, with weeks between the first signs of trouble, and a rise in fatalities.
Has the rollout of the vaccine programme severed the link between infections and deaths? In theory it could, and that is the hope, once enough people are vaccinated.
But with scientists warning of a third wave already, there are reasons to be seriously doubtful.
Even though half of UK adults have received two shots of vaccine, millions are still unvaccinated or protected with only one shot.
As Public Health England found, one shot of Pfizer or AstraZeneca vaccine is only about 33% effective against symptomatic disease from the Delta variant, compared with about 50% effectiveness against the Alpha variant.
The protection ramps up considerably after two doses, hence the government’s urge to rush more second shots into arms, especially for the older and more vulnerable.
To make matters worse, the Delta variant may be up to 50% more transmissible than the Alpha one. If that number is not revised down as the virus spreads around the country, vaccines alone are unlikely to contain it.
Outbreak specialists advising Sage are re-running their models to get a handle on what happens next. But they have already given their ranging shot.
Modelling released at the start of the month found that if the new variant is 40% more transmissible than the Kent one, and if it causes no more severe disease, and if vaccines work as well against it, which they appear not to, then lifting restrictions in step three of the roadmap could drive hospitalisations up to the grim levels seen in January. Taking step four on 21 June could double that peak.
The lockdown and vaccination programme have had a profound impact on the epidemic, bringing deaths down from the heartbreaking highs of winter.
Now, the sun is out, and a longed for summer appears to be upon us.
With many people desperate to be free of Covid restrictions, and a feeling that we are in sight of a return to some kind of normality, ministers are under pressure to stick to the timetable they set – albeit before the Delta variant became an issue.
The question now is: how big a wave can the health service, and the nation, bear?