On the cusp of ‘Freedom Day’ in England on July 19, Boris Johnson was confined in a bad mood to his 16th century mansion of grace and favor, humbled by the row over a botched quarantine exemption . The number of cases stood at over 46,000 a day as all legal restrictions were lifted and the international press called it a big British gamble.
Almost a fortnight later, despite dire predictions, cases in the UK are on the decline. Downing Street doesn’t quite dare to gloat, but cases have fallen for seven consecutive days this week for the first time since November, although the last few days have seen a slight increase. As of Thursday, cases were down 40% from the previous week.
The explanations have been varied – the end of the “Euros effect”, the school holidays, a drop in tests, or a definitive approach to collective immunity – but nothing conclusive.
No one in government will say they think the worst is over – political and scientific advisers have been burned too many times. Even Johnson held back, saying privately to his assistants, “We have to see if it’s a Bactrian camel or a dromedary – does it have a hump or two?”
“We are not hanging ‘mission accomplished’ signs,” a senior government official said. “The uncertainty is quite high. I think it would be foolish to pretend that there was no decent chance of another increase in cases. “
Initially, as cases dwindled over successive days, sources in Whitehall said there was a feeling within government that the data was an outlier. But after seven consecutive days, the trend can no longer be ruled out.
“It’s definitely a trend. Now we have to see this sustained – this pandemic has been very unpredictable. We cannot yet make an appeal on the course of this wave.
Next Friday, Johnson could finally start saying the country has turned a corner. The cases still do not show the impact of lifting the final fourth step. “Only then will we really know for sure if we see what we think we are seeing,” a Whitehall source said.
“And it will be a moment of relief if he keeps going down after that because at the end of the day we want people to get on with their lives, get off their leave, reopen their businesses, we wanted them to do that and it means a lot to millions of people and of course we want it to be the right decision. “
It’s still not clear, even for the country’s most esteemed modelers and epidemiologists, what exactly is going on.
The sharpness of the peak suggested he was not motivated by immunity. Immunity levels differ across the country, and that being the case, different regions would peak at different times before cases started to drop. The result would be that the cases would level off and remain stable for a few weeks before finally trending lower.
A closer look at the data showed cases skyrocketed among young men during the euro – the virus surged when they met in homes and pubs to watch the semi-finals and the finale – creating what a modeler called “a wave within a wave”.
After the final at Wembley on July 11, the wave of new cases quickly dried up. That was not enough on its own to produce a rapid drop in cases, but with largely synchronized immunity and school closings, better weather conditions, and potentially changes in the way people were tested, it there were enough cases to bring down the cases.
There are also signs the UK could be on the verge of some form of herd immunity, even though the virus is likely to last indefinitely. Dr Meaghan Kall, an epidemiologist at Public Health England, suggested that most age groups were getting “very close to herd immunity” because of the antibody data.
Professor Tim Spector, who leads the Zoe Covid Symptom study, which uses an app to get people to report when they are suffering from coronavirus symptoms, said his numbers suggest cases are at about twice the recorded level on the government dashboard. He said young people could choose not to get tested.
“It fell about 30% in two days, which is pretty much unheard of in pandemics, and remember this is happening without restrictions, without lockdowns, without sudden events,” he said. told Sky News. “To me, that sounds a bit fishy. It seems there is another explanation for this other than suddenly the virus gave up. “
None of the models published by Sage took the euro into account and none anticipated the sharp drop in cases last week. Modelers say this reflects the difficulty of predicting human behavior: certainty over the weeks and months to come has always been impossible.
And while the models made it clear – Sage’s scenarios ranged from a minor third wave to thousands of daily hospitalizations – the great uncertainty about what would happen this summer somehow got lost in the messages.
“A little more humility in the face of uncertainty would do everyone good,” said Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh.
“I think the modelers themselves admit that it’s not easy to know why this is happening,” a senior government source said. “Certainly, scientific advisers are cautious. I think the change in approach you’ve seen from some of the modelers over the last week shows you how difficult it is to predict.
In Whitehall, one of the theories is that public caution continues to be upheld, despite the change in enforcement. “People still generally wear masks, keeping their distance,” an adviser said. “This means you are still seeing the effects of this caution. People now know what behaviors will protect them and these still seem to be used. “
“The advice we gave in step four was that you will have a wave of exits every time you open up, and how that unfolds will depend on individual behavior. We now believe that people know very well what to do and take reasonable precautions, especially if they are at risk or know people who are. “
Over the summer, Johnson and other ministers will step up a campaign to get 3 million more young people vaccinated, a key gap in UK coverage despite the turnout among young people at 63%, still a significant majority.
“I think one of the things we can say is that this wave is conclusive proof of how effective vaccines are,” a source from Whitehall said. “The vaccines have prevented 60,000 deaths. It’s extraordinary compared to where we were.