Death toll passes 10,000 in cruel test of strategy

Analysis: Ultimately, it may be that the reason for our death toll is simple. The countries that have done the best, so far, engaged in massive testing and isolation early on. We tried to do that, but did not have the capacity.

Steven Swinford, Deputy Political Editor  www.thetimes.co.uk 

Britain’s coronavirus death toll has passed 10,000 as a government adviser warned that the UK could become the worst affected nation in Europe.

The number of people who died from Covid-19 rose by 737 to 10,612 yesterday and nearly 20,000 people have been admitted to hospital with the illness.

Sir Jeremy Farrar, director of the Wellcome Trust, who sits on the government’s scientific advisory committee, said that the UK could learn lessons from Germany, which introduced mass testing at an early stage.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, called it a sombre day, and questions mounted over Britain’s strategy and whether enough protective equipment was being supplied to frontline NHS workers.

On a positive note, Yvonne Doyle, the medical director of Public Health England, said there were signs that the number in hospital with coronavirus in London was beginning to stabilise but she added: “On the other hand we start to see other areas increasing, particularly the northwest and Yorkshire. It’s very important that the message about staying home and social distancing is adhered to because we are certainly not past this crisis’s damage yet.”

Sir Jeremy also raised concerns about evidence in South Korea that people were becoming reinfected with the virus, which he said could have “massive ramifications” for the development of a potential vaccine. He added that, although a vaccine may be ready by the summer, it could take months to develop the manufacturing capacity needed to distribute it.

He told The Andrew Marr Show on BBC One: “The numbers in the UK have continued to go up. I do hope we are coming close to the number of new infections reducing. But, yes, the UK is likely to be one of the worst, if not the worst, affected countries in Europe.”

He said that Germany had introduced testing at a remarkable rate, adding that the country’s mass testing regime had given it a “critical six to eight weeks” to prepare its health system for the pandemic.

“It is still early in this epidemic. What is critical for Germany is they continue that testing and isolation,” he said. “Inevitably the UK will learn lessons from how Germany has managed to control the epidemic to date.”

On South Korea, he said that evidence suggested that as many as 100 people had become reinfected. “It is critical to understand whether those are one viral infection that has persisted in one individual and now has reactivated or whether they’ve been infected with a second virus,” he said. “Either way immunity in some people is not complete and that has major ramifications for the ability to make a vaccine and also for the community to be protected against further waves.”

He said that vaccines and treatments for coronavirus “are really our only true exit strategy from this”, but added that “the chances of second and third waves of epidemic are probably inevitable”.

In an interview with The Times published on Saturday, Sarah Gilbert, professor of vaccinology at Oxford University, said that the vaccine being developed by her team could be ready by September.

Sir Jeremy said that a vaccine could begin to become available in September but added that manufacturing capacity had to be created to ensure that there was enough to give to billions of people around the world.

He also said that there was evidence that ethnic minority communities were more at risk from coronavirus. He told the BBC: “There is some evidence growing both in the United States and here in Europe that people from [ethnic minority] backgrounds are more at risk. What is critical to work out is whether that is something specific to that background or is it related to other risk factors we know about: age, other illnesses people have . . . diabetes, people who are obese have been more affected, people with high blood pressure, people with heart disease, lung disease.”

Mr Hancock was asked if the “good outcome” of keeping UK deaths below 20,000, as previously stated by Sir Patrick Vallance, the government’s chief scientific adviser, remained likely. He said: “The future path of this pandemic in this country is determined by how people act and that’s why it’s so important that people follow the social distancing guidelines. Predictions are not possible because they depend on the behaviour of the people and I’m really glad that at the moment the British people this weekend are doing their bit.”

ANALYSIS Deaths are hard to explain away (Tom Whipple writes). Comparing countries on the basis of diagnoses is fraught with difficulty. Are they lower in one because there is less testing? Are they higher in another because their testing focuses on hospitals?

Comparing hospital admissions is hard, too. One country may have different criteria for entry, for example, or a different definition of intensive care.

So statisticians tend to place more — though not complete — trust in deaths. They are, to use the technical term, a clear data point, not especially open to interpretation.

On that basis, Britain’s death toll is tough to defend. Our curve is yet to flatten and our daily figure, which still does not count many care home fatalities, exceeds that of the worst-hit countries in the EU, Italy and Spain, at their peak. That those countries still have more deaths in total is little comfort.

Each day’s deaths represent infections from almost a month ago. Since a revolutionary treatment is not on the short-term horizon, it seems plausible that we will pass Italy and Spain in absolute numbers and possibly pass Italy in proportion, too.

That would not necessarily be proof that we had done the wrong thing. Each country is different. London is a global hub with a large, dense population: it was always going to risk a big outbreak. On the other hand, we are also an island. Germany, which isn’t, has managed to control the disease better than any large country in Europe.

Ultimately, it may be that the reason for our death toll is simple. The countries that have done the best, so far, engaged in massive testing and isolation early on. We tried to do that, but did not have the capacity.