Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist from Imperial College London, outlined how deaths from coronavirus could rise to around 200 a day under one of the bleakest scenarios, or some 25,000 in the third wave which has hit the country and is being fuelled by the Delta variant.
However, he believes the Government’s action in removing restrictions is “justifiable” and is “reasonably optimistic” that the country will escape some of the grimmer projections given the high levels of vaccinations in the UK.
Professor Ferguson, whose work was key to the Prime Minister ordering the first lockdown in March 2020, said the ratio between cases and deaths has been reduced by around eight to ten fold compared to the second wave.
“At the peak of the second wave, 50,000 cases would translate into something like 500 deaths,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“But that is going to be much, much lower..this time, more like 50 or so.
“The challenge is there is still the potential of getting very large numbers of cases and this is the million dollar question..if we get very high numbers of cases a day – 150,000, 200,000 – it still could cause some pressure to the health system and of course some public health burden.”
New Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the next phase of the pandemic was “unchartered territory” which could see 100,000 cases a day, but stressed the “wall of defence” from vaccines would keep deaths far lower than in earlier waves.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “It’s fair to say…that by the time we get to the 19th (of July) we would expect case numbers by then to be at least double what they are now, so around 50,000 new cases a day.
“As we ease and go into the summer we expect them to rise significantly and they could go as high as 100,000.”
He added: “But what matters more than anything is hospitalisation and death numbers and that is where the link has been severely weakened.
“Just to put a number on that, at the moment we are seeing around 25,000 new cases a day, the last time we saw numbers like that, we sadly had deaths of around 500 a day, now we are at one thirtieth of that, and that is because the impact of the vaccine, number one, but also the impact of the treatments, the treatments we have today are far better than what we had when this pandemic began.”
On the July 19 “big bang” ditching of restrictions, Prof Ferguson said: “There is a slight gamble, it’s a slight experiment at the moment.
“I think it is justifiable and I am reasonably optimistic.
“But policy will have to remain flexible.
“If we end up in something close to the worst case scenario we and other groups are looking at, which I think is unlikely but can’t be ruled out, then yes there may need to be some course correction later.”
Asked if it was possible to say how big a gamble the Government was taking, he added: “It’s very difficult to be precise and that’s for two reasons.
“First of all, we know vaccines are very effective but the difference between for instance them being 97 per cent effective at preventing death and let’s say 93 per cent effective at preventing deaths, which is difficult to resolve statistically, is basically the difference between a third wave of a certain size, let’s say 10,000 deaths and a third wave of 25,000 deaths and so small changes in those numbers make a big difference to projections,” he explained.
“The second reason…very difficult to resolve is we don’t precisely know vaccine coverage.
“If you look at official statistics there are some age groups where we appear to have vaccinated over 100 per cent of the population in that age group and that just reflects the fact that we don’t have a precise understanding of denominators, the number of people frankly living in the country at a precise time.”
He also stressed that the four-week delay to lifting coronavirus restrictions “has been worth it”.
“The modelling tended to indicate that there was a real benefit to the four-week delay we’re just coming to the end of now, in terms of topping up vaccination, getting second doses to people over the age of 40,” he said.
“I should say of everybody who has died in this pandemic in the UK, 99 per cent of them have been over the age of 40.
“By the time we finally relax, nearly everybody in that age range will have had two doses, which gives a high level of protection.
“There are benefits going beyond that, there are still a few benefits but they’re more incremental.”