AS the UK crawls, slowly and not particularly surely, out of lockdown, attention begins to turn to whether there will need to be another lockdown come the winter. The NHS, still it seems insufficiently protected by the colossal sacrifices made on its behalf, is in need of yet more protection. Two senior doctors have warned of a second wave of coronavirus that could ‘devastate’ and ‘overwhelm’ the NHS, coinciding with the seasonal flu epidemic and a backlog of treatment for illnesses including cancer.
Dr Alison Pittard, head of the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine, said: ‘People might think Covid is over, why do I have to wear a face mask? But it isn’t over. We still have Covid patients in intensive care. If the public don’t physically distance and don’t wear face coverings we could very quickly get back to where we were earlier this year.’
This notion that the UK population remains just as susceptible to the coronavirus as it was in March appears to lie behind much of the continued super-cautious policymaking in government and elsewhere, including the new fashion for imposing masks on the general population.
Professor John Edmunds, for instance, a member of SAGE, has said that a return to pre-lockdown normality is ‘a long way off’: ‘If what you mean by normality is what we used to do until February and the middle of March this year – go to work normally, travel on the buses and trains, go on holiday without restrictions, meet friends, shake hands, hug each other and so on – that’s a long way off, unfortunately. We won’t be able to do that until we are immune to the virus, which means until we have a vaccine that is proven safe and effective. If we return to those sort of normal behaviours, the virus will come back very fast.’
This claim is difficult to square with any evidence in the real world and it is not clear what it is based on, even though it is repeated by scientists and medics with strange certainty. As lockdowns have been lifted around Europe there have been no signs of this confidently predicted deadly new surge, while in the United States it is only states that were not badly affected in the spring that are seeing a small increase now.
The coronavirus had spread far and wide in the UK and new infections were already falling before lockdown was imposed, making it unlikely that the UK population remains highly susceptible to a new outbreak.
This point was given added support last week when Professor Sunetra Gupta’s team at Oxford University published a model showing that, when T-cell cross-immunity from other coronaviruses and other factors reducing susceptibility are taken into account, herd immunity can emerge at 20 per cent antibody rate or below. The researchers said this result ‘should be seen to reinforce’ earlier findings from a team led by epidemiology specialist Gabriela Gomes. They said it helps to explain why some places are worse hit than others, and also suggest that ‘sufficient herd immunity may already be in place to substantially mitigate a potential second wave.’ You might have thought this good news would be reported far and wide, but aside from reports in the Telegraph and the Independent the media appeared oddly silent about it, including the BBC. Is it only doom and gloom that gets reported now?
Boris Johnson has made clear that he is keen not to return to national lockdown, which is not surprising when you look at the towering costs of such an intervention. The government’s own estimates predict an additional 200,000 deaths due to the lockdown from missed medical care, suicide and recession, around four times the number that have so far died with the virus. You may recall, though, that Boris wasn’t keen on imposing the first lockdown but somehow it happened anyway.
There is of course no need for another national lockdown, with Covid-19 deaths in decline for over three months now, since mid-April, and deaths from all causes below average for over a month, since mid-June. But with new infections already falling in mid-March there was no real need for the first.
Yet the local lockdown continues in Leicester, with more threatened, as the government hands local authorities the power to impose them on their own areas. We might hope that local authorities, without the borrowing power of central government and with a greater reliance on local revenue, will be less inclined to impose them and take a more proportionate view of the risk, but in the current self-destructive climate, who knows?
Even without fresh lockdowns though, the socially distanced ‘new normal’ of home-working, two metre spacing and masks looks set to devastate city centres as the country contemplates a future of shuttered shops and restaurants and closed arts, entertainment and heritage venues.
As to masks, the evidence for the efficacy of these in preventing the spread continues to be threadbare, as explained here by two experts on respiratory protection and here by Tom Jefferson and Carl Heneghan of the Oxford Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine.
For influenza the scientific evidence is already clear: general use of masks in everyday life has no or very little impact, and if used improperly can even increase risk of infection. This is because, as this 2015 study showed, cloth masks are permeable to 97 per cent of viral particles and can further increase the risk of infection by storing moisture. The ineffectiveness of masks is demonstrated by Japan, which despite its ubiquitous use of masks experienced a strong flu wave, with around five million people falling ill, in January and February 2019. Similarly, widespread use of masks didn’t stop the initial coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan.
Recent studies arguing that everyday masks are nonetheless effective for the new coronavirus suffer from poor methodology, such as failing to take into account the impact of other interventions, the natural changes in infection numbers, changes in testing regimes and the differences between countries. They even sometimes show the opposite of what they claim. The ‘Facts about Covid-19’ site has more details on this.
We continue to hope for a Prime Minister who’ll start listening to the very many senior sceptical scientists in this country and abroad and take the lead in releasing the country from the ‘new normal’ and bringing it back to normal, as quickly as possible, before any more harm is done.