Owl remembers the Cheltenham Racing Festival 2020

As everyone (in the racing fraternity) celebrates the return of the Cheltenham Festival, Owl remembers how the 2020 festival is credited with being the first super spreading event as Boris Johnson dithered and delayed over imposing any lockdown. This followed Johnson skipping the first five Cobra meetings. 

In 2020 The Cheltenham Festival began on 10 March. On 12 March Johnson asked people with a cough or a temperature to stay at home, and said this: “I must level with you, I must level with the British public. Many more families are going to lose loved ones before their time. This was known as the “Delay” phase or in Johnson’s terms “Squashing the Sombrero”.

Lockdown was finally announced on 23 March.

Had we not been ultimately “saved” by science we certainly wouldn’t have been saved by him.

Ironically, the 2022 Festival is being held as Covid surges again and when, from April fool’s day, Johnson’s libertarian government goes “full ostrich” on testing as we ‘Learn to live with this virus’.

How concerning is it that Covid infections are rising in the UK?

Nicola Davis www.theguardian.com 

Covid infection levels in the UK on are on the rise once more. We take a look at the current situation, and what the future might hold.

What is the Covid situation in the UK?

According to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, based on swabs from randomly selected households, infection levels are rising in the UK. In the week ending 5 March, about one in 25 people in the community in England had Covid, with the figures even higher in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where they were one in 18 and one in 13 respectively. In Wales the latest figure was 1 in 30.

Why are infections rising?

Experts say there are likely to be many factors at play, including the relaxation of Covid measures, changes in people’s behaviour – such as increased socialisation and reduced mask-wearing – the rise of the BA.2 Omicron variant, which appears to be more transmissible than the earlier BA.1 Omicron variant, school half terms, and possible waning of immunity conferred by booster jabs.

However, it is difficult to unpick which is having the biggest impact, and this may differ around the UK.

Does this mean more hospitalisations and deaths?

Sadly, yes. While Covid vaccinations have weakened the link between infections and serious outcomes, they have not broken it. Hospitalisations are already rising in the UK, although it is difficult to unpick how many are directly because of Covid.

Dr David Strain, senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter medical school, said the length of stay for patients was also increasing.

“This is likely to represent a difference in disease course of BA.2 compared to BA.1,” he said. “The increased transmissibility of BA.2 is causing a higher number of patients and staff contracting it even after very brief contact,” he added, which is having an impact on staffing levels.

The impact on deaths will take a little longer to become clear, given the lag between people becoming sick and their condition deteriorating.

How much pressure is the NHS under because of this latest resurgence of Covid?

The number of people with Covid in hospital across the UK rose from 10,500 on 26 February to 11,944 on 10 March, in line with rising infections. However, just 254 of them are on mechanical ventilation, reflecting Omicron’s less serious impact than Delta and fact that eight out of 10 adults have had a Covid booster vaccine. Intensive care doctors say that many Covid inpatients are partly or wholly unvaccinated.

The UK health secretary, Sajid Javid, has said that the rising numbers were “expected” and are “not something that’s of particular concern”. However, Chris Hopson, chief executive of English hospitals body NHS Providers, has warned that “while it is positive that the overall number in hospital remains low compared to previous waves, rising admissions can have knock-on effects for patient care”.

How worried are the experts?

The mood appears to be one of unease rather than alarm. Speaking in a personal capacity, Prof Cath Noakes, an expert in environmental engineering for buildings at the University of Leeds and a member of Sage, said the current situation was not unexpected.

“It was always predicted that as restrictions are removed that cases would rise,” she said. “But as this happened at a time when cases were already very high it will have more of an impact both on the pressure on the NHS and the disruption to schools and business from the very high numbers of people who are off sick.”

Noakes added it was very important to keep a close eye on hospitalisations and cases among older people, given outcomes for this group could be far more serious.

“With the prevalence at least one in 25 and higher in some parts of the UK, the chance of infection is really high and the reduction in testing and lack of requirement to isolate mean that there may be far more infectious people who are still interacting in the community than before,” she said.

One concern raised by experts is that public behaviour was still a long way from what it was pre-pandemic, meaning there is potential for a further rise in infections.

“I’m expecting cases to go up and down and maybe up again as the balance between increased mixing, immunity following vaccination and infection, and waning immunity shifts, and as the next variant emerges,” said Prof Tim Colbourn of University College London, adding cases could be in the range of 30,000 to 100,000 a day for the foreseeable future.

“Hospitalisations and deaths should stay relatively low because of protection via vaccination, drugs and prior infection, and this should apply to new variants too as it has done for previous variants,” Colbourn said, noting excess mortality had been negative since the start of 2022.

What is happening elsewhere in the world?

The UK is not alone in seeing a rise in infections. An increase has also occurred in Germany and the Netherlands, among other countries in Europe, while China has recently reinstated lockdowns in certain hotspots to try to tackle a surge related to the Omicron variant, with Hong Kong warning its hospitals were being overwhelmed.

Why is Hong Kong so hard hit?

The main reason appears to be low rates of vaccination among older age groups. Recent government data suggests just over 55% of those aged 80 and over have had one dose, with just over 36% having had two and far fewer having had three. In addition, a zero Covid approach means there is little natural immunity in the population.

“There are indications that hesitancy is high and actual access to vaccines appear to be an issue,” said Dr Michael Head is a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton.

Noakes said a similar situation was unlikely to occur in the UK in the short term.

“But it serves as a reminder that this virus is still a killer among an unvaccinated population and that the milder effects that we are experiencing in the UK are almost certainly due to our high levels of vaccination coverage,” she said.

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