On the 3rd of November, Prime Minister Boris Johnson brought in strict new lockdown measures across England. At the same time, Wales and Scotland were already under heavy restrictions. With the firebreak now over in Wales, the introduction of four tiers in Scotland, and the lockdown in England due to be lifted on the 2nd December, I wanted to take a look at what the figures say about the last few weeks.
Generally we would expect to see an effect on new cases after 10-14 days, with a knock-on effect on hospital admissions and reduced deaths a few weeks later.
So have these national efforts been working?
The answer is… it depends.
COVID-19 rates for the UK are falling, but there are regional differences
The good news is that our latest analysis for the whole of the UK shows that we are past the peak of new COVID-19 cases, which probably occurred before we went into Lockdown 2.0.
The bad news is that this positive trend masks significant regional differences.
Areas that were under relatively strict tier restrictions in October – including the North East and North West of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – are all seeing a continued drop in the number of new COVID-19 cases after peaking in the second half of October.
By contrast, the number of new cases in the Midlands has risen steadily since the beginning of October and continued during lockdown. Rates are now higher here than in the North of England, although hopefully showing signs of levelling off.
The increases over the last month are hard to explain, given that the Midlands has had many areas under tight restrictions for months. It may be due to reduced compliance over time, or a last-minute increase in socialising before the national lockdown.
Areas that were under lighter Tier 1 restrictions in October with relatively low numbers of cases – such as the South East, South West and East of England – showed initial rises during the first two weeks of lockdown, which now have largely plateaued.
London, which was badly hit in the first wave, has not increased dramatically as feared, apparently peaking at the third week of October and now levelling off.
Who is getting COVID-19 across the UK in Lockdown 2.0?
Our data shows that people who fall ill with COVID-19 tend to be younger. The highest rates are in the 20-39 age groups, who are probably most exposed, and the lowest in people over 60.
Most age groups are showing a decline in cases, except for children and young people under 19 at school and university which are stable.
So while it looks like younger people are driving the current wave of infections, numbers are still relatively low in the older age group that is most likely to become seriously ill or die from the disease, and these numbers appear to be on the way down as well.
However, we shouldn’t be complacent given that up to one in twenty people will suffer from ‘long COVID’, including younger age groups, it’s still vitally important that we all do everything we can to reduce the spread of coronavirus through the UK without crippling the economy, whether mandatory restrictions are in place or not.
How the ZOE COVID Symptom Study app calculates COVID-19 rates
Our figures are predictions about the number of COVID-19 cases based on symptom data provided by over a million weekly users of the app across the UK, combined with the number of local cases confirmed with positive COVID-19 tests.
Although our numbers track in line with other sources, including the national ONS COVID-19 Infection Survey (which randomly tests households across England), the Imperial College REACT-1 study and official government test figures, we calculate these rates using predictions based on reported symptoms rather than testing alone.
This means that we include people who are highly likely to have COVID-19 but haven’t been tested or are waiting for results.
Reassuringly our rapid near real-time data matches the other surveys well. This graph shows how the ONS, Government and ZOE COVID Symptom Study surveys compare, with both our study and the ONS Survey suggesting that we were well past the peak of new infections before the new lockdown started, with our data showing trends a few days earlier.
Are the restrictions working?
Our data shows that England’s tiered system of COVID-19 restrictions was already working when the decision was made to enter a second national lockdown. The situation is similar in Scotland, with cases falling ahead of the new stricter rules being introduced this week.
Broadly, it looks like things are getting under control, with new cases slowly coming down around the country, although at very different rates depending on where you live. According to NHS data up to November 18th Hospital admissions have stabilised, with the seven-day average beginning to fall for the first time, and a peak possibly reached on November 11th. This cannot be due to lockdown, since this would take at least two weeks to have an effect on admissions, and so reflects changes in infections pre-lockdown. Deaths have also now stabilised since November 11th and, again, this can only be due to decreases in infection pre-lockdown, since it would take at least three weeks for the lockdown to impact deaths.
This should mean that this second wave of infections and resulting hospital cases will decline further and we can return to more modest restrictions in December. Those restrictions should be based on encouraging voluntary behaviour changes and using regional data on new cases and hospital admissions / capacity rather than just projected models.
The ZOE COVID Symptom Study app is providing the data we need
The more people we have using the ZOE COVID Symptom Study app, the more accurate our data about how COVID-19 rates are changing across the UK.
Collecting data in this way not only gives us information in near real-time, days ahead of the government testing programme, but is amazingly cost-effective. The ZOE COVID Symptom Study costs a fraction of other testing-based survey methods.
Please share the ZOE COVID Symptom Study app with someone else today, to give the UK public the information we need to get through the coming months and back to normal.
Together we’ll get through this – stay safe and keep logging.