Covid-19 can cast a “long shadow”. Its aftermath effects include “fatigue, a racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, achy joints, foggy thinking, a persistent loss of sense of smell, and damage to the heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain”.
One study suggests that the proportion of those who first catch the virus and then develop such persistent symptoms is about 15 per cent. But there’s still much we don’t know about it and evidence is hard to come by. Nonetheless, it is clearly wrong to claim that the Coronavirus is no worse than flu.
The long shadow effect is also a reminder that one doesn’t either get Covid-19 and end up in hospital, or else not get it at all. However, the UK, like other countries, would not be responding to the virus with a mix of shutdowns, new laws, voluntary action and testing were the Coronavirus not a killer.
As this site explained yesterday, we believe that a choice between more mass lockdowns and a Swedish option would be the wrong one: the best policy to counter Covid-19 is mass testing. But successful testing will inevitably go hand in hand with social distancing and other preventative action. And the scale, duration and sweep of anti-virus measures will ultimately be shaped not by the long shadow, but by death numbers.
These are notoriously hard to calculate, both here and abroad. The NHS in England has changed the way in which they are assessed at least twice: in April and August. The daily figures “do not include deaths outside hospital, such as those in care homes”, and each daily release is always lagging, since “reporting in central figures can take up to several days”.
Furthermore, there is over-counting, because the figures include cases in which Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, which doesn’t necessary mean that it was the main cause of the death, and under-counting, because the figures can’t catch every single case. Those that follow are therefore heavily caveated.
Two similar peaks are recorded as having being reached: 1,152 deaths on April 9 and 1,172 on April 20. Were England to suffer, say, eleven hundred Covid deaths a day for a whole year, that would be some 369,600 deaths in all, plus more in the rest of the UK.
But nothing like that, of course, has actually happened. Writing on ConservativeHome, Raghib Ali says that “we now have good evidence from death certificates that Covid-19 was the underlying cause of death in about 50,000 people”. Still, that’s about 30,000 more than the 20,000 that Patrick Vallance said would be “a good outcome”.
Those recorded deaths began to fall in late April, and the last figure we can find, yesterday’s, was 37. Since August 8, they have ranged from 55 to zero. Those inclined to minimise the severity of Coronavirus will quote those low totals, while those disposed to maximise will quote Vallance’s figure, from his presentation earlier this week, of some 200 deaths a day by November – some 5,600 that month. Or point out that it could be higher.
Replicated each day for a year, that would suggest about 67,000 deaths. But that’s based on cases doubling every seven days, as at present – with no change. Vallance himself conceded that such an assumption is “quite a big if” – which raises the question of whether he should therefore have raised it at all, or at least clearly put it in a more rounded context.
Which would include looking at what’s happening in two other European countries whose increase in numbers we seem to be following: France and Spain. (As last spring, the figures suggest that the UK is treading in the footsteps of some other European countries.)
If 50,000 cases in mid-October were to be followed by 200 deaths a day by November (“the Vallance model”) 10,000 cases a day (“the French/Spanish model”) would be followed by 40 deaths a day. If we play the same game of replicated that number each day for a year, we get 13,440 deaths.
That would be lower than annual flu death totals in England during recent years. Public Health England estimates that on average 17,000 people died from flu in England annually between 2014/15 and 2018/19.
But whether the number of deaths each day by November is 200, more than 200, or 40 (or fewer), there is no reason to believe that a rise from present levels would be sustained.
Ali says that “deaths should…be significantly lower due to the lower age profile of cases…better shielding of those at highest risk and possibly a lower viral load due to social distancing and masks. We are also now much better at managing the disease with more effective treatments.”
Were we to follow Spain and France after all, and if test and trace doesn’t show clear signs of improvement, the mood on the Conservative backbenches is likely to shift away from Government policy, which is ultimately based on state-enforced lockdowns, and towards Sweden’s, and mass voluntary action.