Covid cases could hit 200,000 a day in the UK this year and cause “major disruption” to the NHS, according to the scientist whose initial modelling helped shape Britain’s coronavirus lockdown strategy.
Prof Neil Ferguson said it was “almost inevitable” that Monday’s final phase of unlocking would bring on 100,000 daily cases, with about 1,000 hospitalisations – despite roughly half the UK being fully vaccinated. He added that he could foresee a situation in which the case rate expands to twice the size.
“The real question is do we get to double that – or even higher,” he told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday,. “And that’s where the crystal ball starts to fail. I mean, we could get to 2,000 hospitalisations a day, 200,000 cases a day – but it’s much less certain.”
Daily hospitalisations surpassing 2,000 a day is equivalent to the level in the week leading up to Christmas. Although people currently being hospitalised do not fall as severely ill, and are much less likely to die, Ferguson said that “if you have enough cases, you can still have quite significant burden on the healthcare system … major disruption of services and cancellation of elective surgery and the backlog in the NHS getting longer and longer.”
Coronavirus infections in the UK are surging again and hospitalisations are on the rise, driven by the spread of the Delta variant and the partial lifting of restrictions. Nearly all restrictions are set to be discarded in England on Monday, including mask-wearing and social distancing mandates. Whether this unlocking is permanent or temporary will depend on precautions taken by the public and vaccination rates, scientists have warned, adding there would probably be a surge in cases no matter when the remaining restrictions are lifted.
Ferguson and his team at Imperial College London discovered there had been an almost threefold underestimate of the true scale of the level of infections in the country by March last year – compelling the government to impose a full lockdown on 23 March. The colossal upheaval to the British way of life can therefore be traced directly to the modelling carried out over a few days, calculations that would lead to Ferguson being viewed by sections of the British press and public as the figurehead of lockdown.
Some scientists have vehemently opposed lifting the remaining restrictions on 19 July, suggesting the government has decided to achieve “herd immunity” by effectively letting the virus run wild in young people, which they say will lead to disruptions in NHS care and education. This strategy would also lead to more people suffering from long Covid and raise the risk of new vaccine-resistant variants. Instead, they advise more people should be fully vaccinated before fully unlocking.
Although vaccine uptake has weakened the link between infections and hospitalisations and death – it has not severed it. With a high rate of infections, even a small percentage of people being hospitalised and/or dying will still be a big number, scientists have stressed. Sage advisers expect 1,000 to 2,000 daily hospital admissions over the summer after the unlocking, and 100-200 deaths a day, under what was described as the “central scenario”.
The UK has one of the highest daily new case rates per million globally, according to the Our World in Data project run by the Global Change Data Lab, a UK-based non-profit organisation, behind only Indonesia and Brazil in the rolling seven-day average of new daily Covid cases.