Will there be a second wave of coronavirus ?

Here’s an interesting article from Unherd which I reproduce in full. It contains many very useful data and statistics generated from the Zoe Covid symptom study app, which has over 4 million daily contributors (us included) logging our daily covid-19 status.

There’s been a lot of talk about local lockdowns and resurgence of the virus lately. That’s worrying, obviously, especially for people in the affected areas – which are, at the moment, much of the North of England, as well as Leicestershire and Luton.

I thought it was worth, though, keeping it in context to some degree. I spoke to Tim Spector of King’s College London for my column this week, the creator of the Covid Symptom Study app. While I had him on the line I asked him a bit about the scale of the new outbreaks.

Back at the peak of the outbreak, he said, around March, “we were seeing perhaps 100,000 people a day getting infected, maybe up to 200,000”. Now, those numbers are down around 2,000.

And the number of people who were estimated to actually have symptomatic Covid-19 at the start of April was probably over two million; now, it’s probably a bit less than 30,000. Even in the most badly affected areas now, the disease is affecting about one person in every 200; in the worst places when the virus was really raging, it was “one in 20 or even one in 10”.

The ‘R’ value, the average number of people who each person with the disease passes it on to, is still around one, says Spector: “We’re still ticking along around the ‘one’ level. The highest is 1.3, not two, or three,” which is where we were a few months ago.

What is interesting is why they’re happening almost exclusively in the North. The people affected seem to be younger now, says Spector, so it could be about socialising; “potentially [people in the North] are socialising more inside because it’s slightly cooler” – the difference in risk between indoor and outdoor contact is huge, he says, “bars and gyms are totally different from parks and beaches” – or perhaps it’s because of economic differences that mean more people are doing jobs that put them at risk, such as factory work.

Spector’s team produces a weekly list of the 10 local authorities with the highest rates of Covid-19. That list has been pretty good at predicting where the next local lockdowns will be. But it’s also worth keeping an eye on it because it shows that, even in the worst areas, the actual numbers affected are still fairly small.

None of this is to suggest we ought to be complacent (although who ever says “this is to suggest we ought to be complacent”?). The reason they’re staying low is because our behaviour has changed, and it needs to stay changed for a long time; if we start behaving as we did in January then it could well spring up again. But it is worth being aware of the scale, and that ‘outbreaks’ now are nothing like outbreaks then. They’re orders of magnitude smaller.”

So I’m not sure if the question “will there be a second wave ?” postulated by the author Tim Chivers has been answered. As far as I can see, it seems that if we use the data that the Zoe app generates, and if the test and trace system can be improved in conjunction with local authority contact tracing systems, then the pandemic can be micro-managed, thus avoiding a second wave this winter. Time will tell.

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