UK’s tougher COVID-19 guidance not enough, say scientists

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Researchers at Imperial College London say that up to 250,000 people could die in the UK as a result of the COVID-19 epidemic, unless the government ramps up measures to control the spread of virus.

Using new epidemiological computer simulations – taking into account as much data on the spread of the new coronavirus around the world as possible – they say that the UK government’s mitigation strategy doesn’t go anywhere near far enough to prevent a catastrophic number of deaths.

Mitigation based on hand washing, home isolation of suspect cases, quarantine for people living in the same household and social distancing for the elderly and at-risk could reduce the number of cases by two third and deaths by half, say the researchers,

However, that would still “likely result in hundreds of thousands of deaths and health systems (most notably intensive care units) being overwhelmed.”

The Imperial analysis raises questions about the UK’s response, and why it didn’t implement more stringent public health measures to suppress the virus sooner – as China and Korea have done – to break chains of transmission. Cases of coronavirus reached 1,950 in the UK yesterday with 71 deaths.

The UK’s initial response was based on modelling data from Wuhan in China, the epicentre of the outbreak, but according to Imperial new information such as the situation in Northern Italy, where many more people than expected have ended up needing intensive care, has dramatically changed the simulations.

In Italy and Spain cases seem to be increasing much more rapidly than in China, raising fears that the moderate response in Europe may cause the epidemic to spread more widely throughout the population.

The latest figures show that COVID-19 has killed more than 2,500 people in Italy, with another 2,000 in intensive care, out of a total of around 31,500 cases. Spain meanwhile has almost 11,200 cases and around 500 deaths.

Updated restrictions were announced by the government on Monday – no more non-essential contact with other people, only necessary travel, working from home if possible, avoiding public places like pubs and mass gatherings.

It is also extending the time people self-isolate to 14 days in cases with a persistent cough or fever if they share a home, or seven days if you live alone, and is asking people not to use the NHS unless they really need to.

The tightened approach could help restrict the number of deaths to thousands or tens of thousands, says ICL, but could still see intensive care units overwhelmed.

There is also increasing concern about the reluctance to close schools and colleges, although the counter argument here is that it could lead to key healthcare workers being absent to look after children. Critics also say there isn’t enough testing being done to identify cases and break transmission chains.

The government insists it is following scientific advice and its response is appropriate, as a complete shutdown approach could lead to little immunity in the population and the risk that cases could escalate once restrictions are lifted.

Other countries are however going much further. In France, for example, since midday yesterday no one can now leave home without a government form that they can print out at home to justify their reason to be out, such as going to work, buying essential food or medical supplies, or a family emergency. If found outdoors for other reasons they will be fined €135.

The number of confirmed cases in France grew to 7,730 yesterday, with the death toll rising to 175, with 7% of the dead aged under 65.

The EU has also sealed Schengen area borders to non-EU nationals for 30 days, adding to unilateral closures imposed by countries such as Italy, Spain and the Czech Republic, and invited the UK and Ireland to follow suit.