THE THIRD Covid wave could start next week when restrictions are eased again.
But new modelling by scientists shows it won’t be anywhere near as bad as the January peak due to vaccines.
🔵 Read our coronavirus live blog for the latest updates
Infections will inevitably rise following the May 17 unlocking, which will see indoor hospitality open, social mixing indoors and hugging allowed.
Scientists advising the Government (Sage) said the R number will probably rise above 1 following this step.
But it is “highly unlikely to put unsustainable pressure” on the NHS, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) group, a sub-group of Sage, said.
Central estimates reveal that in the worst case scenario, there could be an absolute maximum of 54,900 hospital admissions in one year once all restrictions are lifted as planned in June.
Hospital occupancy could peak at 5,700 and deaths at 11,200 by September 2021.
These figures are based on immunity from vaccines slightly waning. If this doesn’t happen, the situation will be largely improved with no more than another 4,000 deaths by September 2021 in the worst possible scenario.
In the central models, no more than around 175 deaths per day will occur at the “peak” of the third wave in September, models show.
SPI-M-O’s summary, given to the Government on May 5, said there were a lot of uncertainties.
And the full impact of lifting restrictions as set out in the roadmap will not become clear until mid-June at the earliest, as it takes some time for the direction of the outbreak to show in data.
The group, with members including Prof “Lockdown” Neil Ferguson, were given modelling by three universities – Warwick, Imperial and London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
It said the lifting of all restrictions in June could cause a wave at the end of July “comparable to that seen during the first wave” in spring 2020, when deaths were at 1,000 per day and hospital occupancy at 30,000.
At the extreme, it could reach higher levels than in January 2021.
But as well as preventing severe disease and death, the jabs have since been found to slash transmission of the virus, too.
What were the best and worse case scenarios?
Modelling from the universities of Warwick and Imperial and the London School of Hygeine and Tropical Medicine reveal varying estimates of what the third wave could look like.
After step four, planned for June 21, the central estimates are the following:
Total hospital admissions
Warwick, to June 2022: 34,900
Imperial, to June 2022: 54,900
LSHTM, to September 2021: 51,900 but 17,300 with no waning immunity.
Peak hospital occupancy
Warwick, to June 2022: 4,620
Imperial, to June 2022: 4,200
LSHTM, to September 2021: 5,700 but 1,900 with no waning immunity.
Warwick, May-June 2022: 7,250
Imperial, May-June 2022: 9,000
LSHTM, May-September 2021: 11,200 but 4,000 with no waning immunity.
The documents from SPI-M-O, published last night, said the virus is still evolving and it was likely that existing vaccines may fail to be as effective in the future.
The modelling did not take account for the potential dominance of new variants in the UK.
It assumed that the Kent variant remains dominant – however, data suggests the Indian variant could soon overtake.
A strain that “evades immunity” could “easily cause a significant wave of hospitalisations or deaths of a similar or larger magnitude than that seen in January 2021”, the paper warned.
It can be avoided if measures are taken to control it, the group said.
“Maintaining control of transmission of any such variants will be more difficult when there are fewer measures in place,” the Sage sub-group added.
Aside from variants, one of the two “biggest risks” to keep cases low was a low uptake of vaccines in younger people, the paper said.
The second was a high level of social contact in the early stages of coming out of lockdown.
Although Brits are eager to get back to normality, the scientists warned the “opportunity to keep the next resurgence small” relied on people being cautious.
It said behaviour would not be able to return to “pre-pandemic levels” – with people seeing 11 people per day, on average.
Professor Graham Medley, chairman of the SPI-M, said the pandemic was “not over yet” and measures “will still be required”.
Speaking of the documents this morning, Prof Medley told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme there will “inevitably” be a third wave of infection “but whether that translates into hospitalisations, I think is the big question”.
Asked how normal life could be at the end of the year, he said: “I don’t think anyone can give you the complete answer, if vaccines continue to work, and we don’t have some nasty variants, then potentially we could be completely back to normal by the end of the year.
“But, on the other hand, if there are variants, if the vaccines wane, so the impact wanes and we aren’t able to get boosters, then we could have been in a very different position.”
Earlier, he said the country was currently in its best position, saying: “We’re in the best position that we’ve been in the whole epidemic, prevalence is low, vaccines are working.”
Infection rates are now at their lowest levels since September and there are no more than 1,200 hospital patients across the UK.
The vaccine rollout continues to move at speed, currently working through those in their 40s, with all adults on track for a first dose by July.
It comes after Professor Chris Whitty said an increase in transmission should be assumed as a result of the opening up that will occur on May 17.
But the chief medical officer for England said: “We do not think there is a likelihood in this next period that there will be a significant pressure on the NHS.”
Prof Whitty explained at the Downing Street Briefing last night that most of the variants are currently relatively stable.
“The one that is slightly concerning in terms of increasing as a proportion is the variant which has been described from India”, Prof Whitty warned.
“That does appear to be increasing but from very low levels over the last two weeks.”
He said that we needed to “keep a close eye on it”.
Meanwhile the Health Secretary Matt Hancock said there is “no doubt that a new variant is the biggest risk” to easing lockdown.
Mr Hancock told BBC Breakfast: “We have this variant that was first seen in India – the so-called Indian variant – we have seen that grow.
“We are putting a lot of resources into tackling it to make sure everybody who gets that particular variant gets extra support and intervention to make sure that it isn’t passed on.
“However, there is also, thankfully, no evidence that the vaccine doesn’t work against it.”