The Times leads this morning with Chris Whitty’s comment at yesterday’s Government press conference that the trend in new infections is beginning to “flatten out”, with the death toll remaining below 800 for the fourth day in a row. Does this mean that when Dominic Raab announces later today that the the lockdown restrictions will remain in place for at least another three weeks – that’s the expectation, anyway – he will encourage some workers to return to work straight away? In Spain, people in manufacturing, construction and some services were allowed to return to work on Tuesday.
One reason to be pessimistic about the announcement is that if we are flattening the curve that’s not necessarily an argument for easing up on extreme social distancing measures. After all, won’t new infections start to climb again as soon as they’re relaxed? Professor Neil Ferguson, the Imperial College scientist whose modelling has influenced the Government’s decision-making, said on the Today programme this morning that we shouldn’t ease back on the lockdown until an extensive programme of testing and contact tracing is in place. He called for the creation of a “command and control centre” to oversee this and other aspects of managing the virus – something like the Department for Existing the European Union.
In Professor Ferguson’s March 16th paper – the one that frightened the Government into imposing the lockdown a week later – he and his team recommend keeping social distancing measures in place until a vaccine is available, which they warn will take “18 months or more”, and suggest that in the interim the most we can hope for is the “intermittent” lifting of some of the more extreme measures:
We show that intermittent social distancing – triggered by trends in disease surveillance – may allow interventions to be relaxed temporarily in relative short time windows, but measures will need to be reintroduced if or when case numbers rebound.Neil Ferguson et al, ‘Impact of non-pharmaceutical interventions (NPIs) to reduce COVID- 19 mortality and healthcare demand‘, Imperial College COVID-19 Response Team, March 16th 2020
However, it may be that a scaling back of the lockdown doesn’t result in a resurgence of cases, meaning no need to do a reverse ferret. According to Major General (Res) Professor Isaac Ben-Israel, chairman of the Israeli Space Agency and the National Council for Research and Development, the head of the Security Studies program at Tel Aviv University, the epidemic in each country will last no longer than eight weeks, peaking in the sixth week. He has crunched the data across a number of countries and found that the rise and fall of new infections is the same in each one, provided you adjust for the different start times. “This is happening both in countries that have closed down like us and in those that have not closed until today like Sweden, every country no matter its response,” he told Arutz Sheva 7, the Israeli television news service. “The decline and rise occur according to the same timeline.”
Professor Ben-Israel, who has a PhD in Philosophy and a BSc in Physics and Mathematics from Tel Aviv University, said it was clear how the epidemic starts in each country and why infections begin to climb, but not clear why new infections always peak after six weeks and then start to decline. Nonetheless, he has enough confidence in his analysis to recommend that Israel abandon its lockdown and get everyone back to work within two weeks.
For what it’s worth, there’s an interesting comment from Caswell Bligh, a computer scientist, below ‘What percentage of the UK population has been infected?’ on this blog. His theory is that recent findings in parts of Germany and elsewhere that ~15% of the population has antibodies may not mean the remaining 85% of the population hasn’t been exposed to the virus. He speculates that some people may have a natural immunity and can therefore resist SARS-CoV-2 without having to develop antibodies, which might explain why so many people exposed to the virus are asymptomatic. It would also explain why some people, having been exposed once and not fallen ill, could then become re-infected. Bligh has created a model, based on this theory, that shows a population can reach stable herd immunity if just 15% test positive for the antibodies.
One of yesterday’s big stories was that Keir Starmer has demanded the publication of an exit strategy. This is an interesting intervention from the new Labour leader, suggesting his attack line from now on will be that the Government isn’t doing enough to help the economy, not that it’s done too little to suppress the spread of the virus. For the hawks in the Government who want to end the lockdown sooner rather than later – and for lockdown sceptics more generally – that’s helpful since it will give the Government the political cover it needs to start easing off on some of the extreme social distancing measures. Until now, there’s been a risk that Labour would attack the Government if it did that on the grounds that it was prioritising the economy over people’s lives. But it looks as though Keir Starmer, at least, isn’t planning to do that.
If you’re looking for scientific evidence to support the case for ending the lockdown, the ‘Facts about COVID-19‘ site is as invaluable as ever. Among the stories in its April 15th update is one from a Luxembourg paper reporting that Sweden’s mitigation strategy is working, with the new infection curve beginning to flatten. That’s also true of the number of daily deaths in Sweden, or was yesterday anyway. I’ll leave you with a graph showing the daily death toll in Sweden.