Coronavirus cases could fall significantly in November without any restrictions being reintroduced, modelling seen by the government suggests.
Experts at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) have predicted that – even without the government’s ‘Plan B’ – COVID cases, hospital admissions and deaths in England will peak in November and start to fall rapidly to much lower levels by Christmas.
According to their modelling, if the government reintroduces restrictions, delaying ‘back-to-normal’ behaviour until the spring, there will still be a drop in the coming weeks, but rates will rise again much faster next year.
Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia, told Sky News the modelling suggests the UK is close to ‘endemic equilibrium’.
“Once you reach endemic equilibrium, non-pharmaceutical interventions (social distancing and mask wearing) stop having much of an effect.”
He said the main reason behind this is immunity levels.
“At the moment we’re hearing a lot of voices calling for increased restrictions,” he added.
“But the modellers are predicting incredibly low numbers by mid-December in pretty much all of their scenarios.
“So if they’re suggesting that even if we do nothing cases are going to decline substantially, more restrictions don’t seem to be the appropriate response.”
The LSHTM findings were one of several reports presented to the government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-MO) last week, who warned that they could be “too optimistic”.
This is because the data they used does not take into account how certain events can change the way people behave – such as Euro 2020 or Christmas.
SPI-MO’s latest report cautions: “Increases in transmission around the time of the Euro 2020 football matches were not visible in the data sources.
“The mid-winter festive period usually sees different mixing behaviour that could have a similar effect to the Euro 2020 football matches.
“If similar were to happen again… it is possible that these modelling results may be too optimistic.”
They also do not take into account the new mutation of the Delta variant – AY4.2 – which scientists say could be 10% more infectious.
Similar modelling done by the University of Warwick uses a “more precautionary behaviour metric” and takes into account other winter pressures such as flu.
But despite the differences, Warwick, like LSHTM, predicts that a delay in ‘normal’ behaviour would see a more gradual decline in hospital admissions than if it stayed as it is.
It also predicts that “later, a combination of waning immunity, behaviour change and seasonality would result in a further wave”.
Warwick said the timing of another winter wave is “highly uncertain” but could peak anywhere between January and May.
SPI-MO advisers say that whatever happens to coronavirus case rates this winter, it is “highly unlikely” hospital admissions will peak as high as they did last winter.
They believe vaccine protection would have to decline significantly for changes in public behaviour to result in a repeat of last year.
The LSHTM also models potential drops in vaccine protection and the uptake of booster vaccines, but these both still point to a drop in rates this winter.
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If COVID immunity offered by vaccines wanes far more than it has so far, modellers predict there will be a much bigger peak next spring.
But Professor Hunter adds that booster vaccines – currently being given to the over-50s, NHS and social care workers and the clinically vulnerable – are proving “a lot more effective than we were expecting”.
A recent study by Pfizer showed that a third dose of its vaccine offers 95.6% protection against symptomatic infection.
“If that’s the case, then possibly there will be an increase in the speeding up of that reduction in rates,” Professor Hunter said.
The government has repeatedly resisted calls to reintroduce mandatory face masks and working from home as part of a Plan B to protect the NHS this winter.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid told Times Radio on Monday: “At the moment… we don’t think the data shows that we need to move to Plan B but that said, it’s really important that we all keep playing our part and that means getting vaccinated, especially if you’re eligible for the booster jab please come forward, and also just being cautious on a daily basis and following the advice.”