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Understanding the Covid numbers
Sensemaker audio

Understanding the Covid numbers

Understanding the Covid numbers

Schools in England have gone back this week, and there’s real worry about a surge in Covid infections. What can we learn from what’s happened to infections this summer?


Transcript

Hi, I’m Nimo – and this is Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, what’s actually happening to Covid infection rates in England?

***

“Children in England are heading back to school and with their return come big questions to be answered. What effects will the mixing of students have on the nation’s coronavirus figures?”

News clip

Kids are back in the classroom and the nights are drawing in. 

And if you believe some predictions, as sure as the leaves turn brown, we’re going to see a lot more Covid cases as we move into autumn.

But haven’t we been here before… Back in July when we reopened? 

When it felt like we could be in real trouble, and even the health secretary Sajid Javid was admitting as much.

“As we ease and go into the summer, we expect them to rise significantly. And they could go as high as 100,000 case numbers.”

Sajid Javid radio interview

But that surge, well, it didn’t materialise. 

What happened surprised everyone: Covid cases kept falling. And even though they’ve risen again now, they haven’t gone up to anywhere near the level that many people feared.

And certainly not into the real danger zone: where hospitals would be overwhelmed and daily deaths would shoot up.

So what can the last few months tell us about the state we’re really in? 

And what hope does it give us for the next few months?

“The long, long wait is over. A Wembley roar…”

Wembley Euro 2020 semi-final commentary

Summer 2021 was when big events came back.

There was Euro 2020. And  since then, it’s felt like it’s been all guns blazing – especially for young people, and festival-goers.

“Words can’t express how good it is to see your beautiful faces – and hear your lovely voices.”

Liam Gallagher at Reading Festival

Festivals like Boardmasters in Newquay, Reading Festival, All Points East in London have played hosts to hundreds of thousands of people.

And there’s a reason I mention those three festivals in particular.

It’s because they’ve all been associated with Covid spikes.

Last month nearly 5,000 cases were linked to Boardmasters, while cases spiked among older teenagers… in southeast England after Reading… and in London after All Points East.

What can those surges tell us about how Covid is spreading at the moment?

Those spikes after music festivals go some way to explaining why infection levels have been rising and falling in slightly unpredictable ways.

Last week the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine published research that showed that at the moment the average person is only in direct contact with four other people a day. 

That number was at 11 before the first lockdown. 

And so when thousands of young people gather in a field over a whole weekend, it can cause pretty big blips in the Covid case rates… because it’s a time when people drop their guard.

That’s borne out by the fact that 15 to 24 year olds were the age group by far hit the hardest over the summer. They’re taking more risks with Covid than older generations, and they’re less likely to be vaccinated. 

But here’s the upside. 

Those spikes tend to calm down again quite quickly… not least because lots of those young people then go back to their parents, who, by and large, are fully vaccinated and so are much less likely to catch Covid.

What does this mean for the UK now that schools have reopened?

Well we can definitely expect a spike in cases. 

The CO2 monitors that the government have promised to give to schools to increase ventilation don’t seem to have been rolled-out yet.

And most of the people unvaccinated in the UK are children.

The UK’s vaccine advisory body isn’t recommending jabs for 12 to 15 year olds… although it looks as if the government might go ahead with it anyway.

But there are definitely reasons to be hopeful that we can ride the wave.

Older teenagers are now being vaccinated. Almost half of 16 to 17 year olds have been jabbed. And remember that plenty more will have already caught Covid over the summer.

And there’s some room for optimism in the story of what happened at those music festivals. 

Spikes in particular areas or among particular groups have often been temporary. They haven’t led to sustained transmission in the wider community.

It’s possible that we may have enough people vaccinated or immune from infection to fight our way through the winter – CO2 monitors or not.

Today’s episode was written and produced by Xavier Greenwood.