Latest UK Virus Advice Aims To Cut Deaths to a "Few Thousands"

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Researchers at Imperial College London, whose disease modelling fed into the government’s new and more stringent coronavirus strategy announced on Monday, said the move could cut UK deaths from Covid-19 from an estimated 260,000 under the previous policy to “a few thousands or tens of thousands.”

But measures might need to be sustained for many months or longer to keep suppressing infection. “We might be living in a very different world for a year or more,” said Neil Ferguson, head of the modelling programme at Imperial’s MRC centre for global infectious disease analysis.

The researchers presented their latest analysis after the prime minister’s press conference at 10 Downing Street. They suggested that the government’s original policy announced last week would have cut Covid-19 deaths from 500,000 without any action at all to 260,000 — and would have reduced peak healthcare demand by two-thirds but would still “overwhelm the health system”.

Modelling a scenario similar to the new measures — including social distancing of the whole population, home isolation of cases and household quarantine of their families — might bring total deaths down to about 20,000 if they were observed strictly, said Azra Ghani, another member of the Imperial team.

School closures might become necessary too, though they could seriously harm the NHS by forcing staff to stay at home to look after their children. As many as a third of nurses have school-age children, Prof Ferguson said.

Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, who was not involved in the project, commented: “The modelling paper by Imperial College London has clearly informed the new measures from the chief medical officer, and therefore it is excellent to have that data available to scrutinise.

“Prof Ferguson and colleagues clearly warn that the NHS will at some point likely be overwhelmed, and thus perhaps today’s announcements will hit home to the UK general population just how serious this pandemic is, and what will be required of them over the coming months,” Dr Head said.

According to Prof Ferguson, the new strategy abandons the idea of “herd immunity” — managing the infection rate so that enough people become immune to prevent the virus from transmitting. The new aim is suppression. “We want to ensure that only a small fraction of the country will be infected,” he said.

It would be harder than experts believed last week to prevent hospitals from becoming overwhelmed by Covid-19 patients, Prof Ferguson said: “We have had bad news from Italy and from early experience in UK hospitals that the intensive care requirements will be nearly twice what we had anticipated.”

The latest evidence suggests that 30 per cent of patients admitted to hospital with Covid-19 will need critical care in an intensive care unit, he said. Previous estimates, based on experience with viral pneumonia, were too low.

The Imperial College paper concludes: “The major challenge of suppression is that this type of intensive intervention package — or something equivalently effective at reducing transmission — will need to be maintained until a vaccine becomes available (potentially 18 months or more), given that we predict that transmission will quickly rebound if interventions are relaxed.

“Intermittent social distancing — triggered by trends in disease surveillance — may allow interventions to be relaxed temporarily in relatively short time windows but measures will need to be reintroduced if or when case numbers rebound.”