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Covid: We’ve passed the climax, can we relax now?

Who would have thought we would be here now?

Like Olympic gold medalists Tom Daley and Marty Lee, the UK is experiencing a dramatic drop in Covid cases.

The number of daily confirmed cases has fallen for six consecutive days and now stands at 24 950.

Just over a week ago, there were warnings that we could reach 100,000 or even 200,000 cases a day. Unlike the first two waves of Covid, there is no nationwide blockade. Instead, we are opening up.

This change is surprising and welcome

So has the third wave of Covid in the UK really worsened, and with it can we consider a return to normal life?

As with Covid, things are not that simple, and the challenge of finding the peak is that it is difficult to do so when you live on top of it.

“It’s certainly good to see a drop in the number of cases, but we need a reality check,” Professor Christl Donnelly of Oxford University and Imperial College London told me.

“We had a dramatic increase, and then, within sight, another dramatic decrease.

“We have to be careful not to over-interpret it.

Is Covid really in decline?

We’re not sure what’s happening because there’s always a difference between what can be measured in the data and what’s actually happening.

So it’s like a pandemic puzzle where several pieces of evidence have to be put together to get the true picture.

The decline in laboratory-confirmed cases is only one piece (albeit the most important) of the puzzle.

There are other pieces of evidence: the number of people hospitalized or surveys by national statistical offices.

It is useful to know how many people are infected, even if they show no symptoms.

If one of these numbers is also declining, confidence grows that cases are indeed declining.

“I want to believe we’re turning the corner, but I’m skeptical until we have all the data,” says Dr Mike Tildesley of the University of Warwick.

Why might cases be declining?

There is currently a high level of immunity in the UK due to a combination of the vaccine (70% of adults have received two doses) and people who have already contracted the virus.

But we have not yet achieved “herd immunity” (or “population immunity”), i.e. so many people are immune that it is difficult for the virus to spread.

In this case, the increase in cases would slowly slow down and level off, and then the number of cases would decrease.

Conversely, there would be a sharp increase in reported cases, followed by an equally sharp decrease. Professor Donnelly said, “It’s unlikely that herd immunity would lead to such a rapid change.

So is there another change in our behavior, other than immunity, that makes this difference more likely?

‘For me,’ says Professor Adam Kucharski of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, ‘there are two important factors: school closures and increased awareness of the growing epidemics, and nicer weather.

Summer holidays mean that children mix less and parents congregate less at the school gates.

Sunny weather means we can meet with others outdoors, where viruses are less likely to spread.

Although restrictions are being relaxed, ‘residual caution’ means that many of us continue to live within the rules.

“There are constant messages reminding us that we are in the middle of a pandemic,” he said.

“The level of exposure after the third step is well below normal: a third less than pre-pandemic levels (an average of 10 exposures per day),” says Professor Kucharski.

So is it time to relax?

“We haven’t suddenly reached a magic point that means cases will only decrease from now on,” says Professor Donnelly.

“It’s one thing to be calm, but it’s not wise to be less careful when you are.”

Some things are happening now.

We have yet to see the impact of the relaxation of restrictions last Monday (19 July), which included the reopening of nightclubs in England.

This is because of the long time lag between contracting the virus, developing symptoms and testing positive.

This weekend is the first where scientists expect an impact, but it may take longer as people may not use the relaxed rules until the weekend after 19 July.

Then there is the fear that people’s behavior will change, like the opposite of a self-fulfilling prophecy. The better we think things will get, the more the virus will spread with our behavior and the worse the situation will get.

Will we see 100,000 cases a day?

There was a time when 100,000 cases a day seemed possible.

We have now passed the 50,000 mark and the number of cases seems to be rising rapidly.

“Fortunately, we are moving away from that cliff, but we are still close,” says Professor Kucharski.

“You have to remember that there are still a lot of infections. If behavior changes, then you’re only two multiples away from 100,000 (from 25,000 cases to 50,000 and 100,000 cases).”

Professor Donnelly said such a high prediction was “unlikely” now, but warned that we still had “many months” to wait.

If cases are indeed declining, then we are in a period when weather, schools and immunity are working in our favor. There is still uncertainty about the autumn season, when schools will reopen and people will be back indoors.

But for now, we seem to be in a better position than ever before.

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