So near and yet not quite…

There’s been quite an amazing turnaround since my last blog post. At the time I wrote that, the Govt was insisting that schools would open as planned (indeed they did open the very next day), and that another lockdown was unthinkable. So my grim simulations were performed on that basis.

Of course, the next evening, we had another u-turn… schools shut immediately and many other restrictions were introduced on social mixing. Even so, most of the experts thought we would be in for a rough time, and I didn’t see any reason to disagree with them. The new variant had been spreading fast and no-one was confident that the restrictions would be enough to suppress it. Vaccination was well behind schedule (who remembers 10 million doses by the end of the year?) and could not catch up exponential growth of the virus.

Just after I posted that blog, someone pointed me to this paper from LSHTM which generated broadly similar results with much more detailed modelling. Their scenarios all predicted about 100k additional deaths in the spring, with the exception of one optimistic case where stiff restrictions starting in mid-December, coupled to very rapid vaccination, could cut this number to 30-40k. Given that we were already in Jan with no lockdown and little vaccination in sight, this seemed out of reach. Here is the table that summarises their projections. Note that their “total deaths” is the total within this time frame, not total for the epidemic.

However, since that point, cases have dropped very sharply indeed. Better than in the most optimistic scenario of LSHTM who anticipated R dropping to a little below 1. Deaths have not peaked quite yet but my modelling predicts this should happen quite soon and then we may see them fall quite rapidly. The future under suppression looks very different to what it did a couple of weeks ago.

So this was the model fit I did back on 3rd Jan, which assumes no lockdown. Left is cases, right is deaths which rises to well over 1k per day for a large part of early 2021.

And here are the cumulative median infections and deaths corresponding to the above, with some grid lines marked on to indicate what was in store up to the end of Feb (for infections) and end of March (for deaths). As you can see, about 100k of the latter in this time frame (ie 186-73 = 113k additional deaths).

Here now are the graphs of the latest model fit showing the extremely rapid drop in cases and predicted drop in deaths assuming a 6 week lockdown:

And here is the resulting median projection for total cumulative infections and deaths as a direct comparison to the previous blog post:

It’s a remarkable turnaround, and looks like we are on track for about 114-86 = 28k additional deaths (to start of April), which is far lower than looked possible a couple of weeks ago. It seems plausible that an large part of the reason for the striking success of the suppression is that the transmission of the new variant was predominantly enhanced in the young and therefore closing schools has had a particularly strong effect. The assumption that lockdown lasts for 6 weeks, and what happens after it, is entirely speculative on my part but I wanted to test how close we were to herd immunity at that point. Clearly there will be more work to be done at that time but it shouldn’t be so devastating as at present, unless we lose all our immunity very rapidly.

So that’s looking much better than it was. However it’s also interesting to think about what might have happened if the Govt had introduced the current restrictions sooner. Moving the start of the lockdown back by three weeks generates the following epidemic trajectory:

and the resulting cumulative infections and deaths look like:

Due to the automatic placing of text it’s not so easy to read but we end up with about 84000 deaths total (to end of March) which is fewer than we’ve already had.

So the additional 30k deaths seems to be the price we paid for Johnson’s determination to battle the experts and save Christmas.

5 thoughts on “So near and yet not quite…

  1. >what might have happened if the Govt had introduced the current restrictions … 3 weeks earlier

    Would it have been as effective? Wouldn’t some Christmas preparations and more rule breaking have occurred with cases and deaths lower than they have been recently and not quite as much stress on NHS?

    Still if only a fraction of 30k deaths were saveable, it is still a lot of lives and not much in the way of Christmas celebrations were “saved”.

    • I agree it’s very difficult to disentangle multiple factors over this period. Schools were closed for most of it anyway, and probably some workplaces had lower attendance (though, not hospitality perhaps). So it’s hard to construct realistic what-if scenarios. But OTOH since we have managed to suppress quite strongly, it it hard to argue that we couldn’t have done it earlier.


  2. SCC – Americas – (CA + US)
    EU = Everything west of Russia
    RoW = World – (China + EU + US)

    World death doubling time ~100 days

    EU and US death doubling time ~80 days

    Both plots using JHU and seven day centered moving average (3,5,7,9,11,13,15 are timespans for calculation of doubling times, tremendous autocorrelations therein, but the similarity between 3 thru 15 I still find rather striking, well maybe not, considering smoothing thereof).

    What I find really surprising though, is that, on a per capita basis, the UK (1311 per M) and the US (1226 per M) remain rather close (they were closer) for deaths per worldmeters …
    https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/

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