Could the third wave be running out of steam?

20 July 2021

10:46 PM

20 July 2021

10:46 PM

Will we get to 100,000 new Covid infections a day, as Sajid Javid has suggested, or even to 200,000 a day as Professor Neil Ferguson has floated? Until Saturday, new cases were galloping upwards at such a rate that such an outcome seemed assured. But in the last couple of days there has been a dramatic falling off in new cases: from 54,674 reported on Saturday, to 48,161 on Sunday and 39,950 on Monday. Those are for the UK – for England the corresponding figures are 50,955, 44,777 and 34,657. Each of these figures were higher than the same day the week before. And of course, we also have to be wary of the weekend effect – although that tends to affect reported deaths more than infection numbers. But there was no drop-off in reported infections over the previous weekend nor for the three weekends prior to that – on the contrary, infections rose between Saturday and Monday on each occasion.

Could the third wave of infections be running out of steam? That is certainly the suggestion of the Covid Symptom Study conducted by King’s College London, in association with health app ‘Zoe’. Indeed, it suggests that the third wave may even have peaked a little while ago. The data collected by the study suggests that the average number of daily symptomatic infections in the week to 10 July fell slightly from 33,118 – down from 33,723 the previous week.

What is especially interesting is the changing composition of new infections. The average daily number of symptomatic cases among unvaccinated people was 17,581, down 22 per cent on the previous week. The number of cases among partly or fully vaccinated people, by contrast, rose by 40 per cent over the same period. This could suggest that the third wave is spreading upwards among age groups – the upper of which have higher levels of vaccination.

But it also suggests that the third wave is beginning to run out of unvaccinated people to infect. That is a promising sign as the vaccines have shown themselves to be extremely good at preventing serious cases of the disease. If cases among unvaccinated people really are falling sharply we can expect a rapid decline in hospitalisations in the coming days. There is no sign in the government figures that this is happening yet, but then there is a lag in the figures for hospitalisations. The latest figure published for daily hospital admissions is for 13 July, when they hit a new high – for the third wave – of 742.

There are, as ever, caveats. The Covid Symptom Tracker doesn’t pick up every case – it is an estimate based on a sample of people who are using the Zoe app. Moreover, as its name suggests, it is only picking up symptomatic cases – it gives no clue as to the spread of asymptomatic cases, which have been so important in the spread of Covid.

Nevertheless, with the PHE figures also showing a sharp decline over the past three days, there may be reason to hope that the third wave is now peaking. Next week’s data should confirm this or show it to be wrong.

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