Ben Lowry: If the final death toll ends up lower than was feared it will just mean that we have been lucky

Women wait for emergency cash in Pakistan during lockdown. Death rates are said to be much higher without treatment, which is a huge problem for poor nations with bad healthcareWomen wait for emergency cash in Pakistan during lockdown. Death rates are said to be much higher without treatment, which is a huge problem for poor nations with bad healthcare
Women wait for emergency cash in Pakistan during lockdown. Death rates are said to be much higher without treatment, which is a huge problem for poor nations with bad healthcare
The chief scientific officer Sir Patrick Vallance on Thursday estimated that under 10% of UK people have Covid-19.

Some people thought the figure sounded low and feared that it meant we are only early in the pandemic.

It does, if correct, confirm that there is a long way to go, but there is a more hopeful way of looking at such figures — that they might, if true, point to lower death rates.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

If, for example, 7% of the UK’s 70 million people have been infected then five million people have it (which tallies with top end Imperial College London estimates).

If we apply the most commonly cited death rate for coronavirus of 1% to five million (ie 1 in 100 die), then 50,000 will die, and hundreds of thousands of will go to hospital.

Before this crisis the UK had under 150,000 hospital beds, so hundreds of thousands of admissions would swamp the NHS, with deadly consequences (mortality rates are said to soar when the worst hit patients do not get treated, and horrific TV footage of bodies in the street in Ecuador gave a glimpse of what can happen in a poor country).

The NHS is nearing capacity in parts of England, but not swamped.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Applying a 7% infection rate to Northern Ireland’s 1.8 million people it would mean 125,000 current or past infections. Of them, 1,250 people would die at a 1% death rate.

This is, for all the talk of ‘modelling’, guesswork. Predicted NI ultimate deaths have ranged wildly from high hundreds to 15,000 because there are so many uncertainties: the 15k figure was based on 80% of the population being infected, 1% of whom die. But the death tally will be almost 20 times lower if the final infection rate is, say, 10% of the population, only 0.5% of whom die.

So if the UK already had infections in the millions it would indicate that a lower percentage die than first thought.

There have been 8,900 UK hospital deaths. The Office for National Statistics thinks the total might be 70% higher when deaths in the community are added (at home or in care homes etc), ie 15,000 dead.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

(Since this article was written on Friday for the weekend print edition, the official UK death total has gone up another 917, the sort of tragic toll that is expected now to happen in the coming days).

Even assuming the delay between infection and death causes that figure to double in the next fortnight, to 30,000, then it needs to come from an overall total of 3 million cases (4% of the UK) for the death rate to stay at or under 1%.

We cannot work out death rates until we know how many people had it, which comes from antibody tests. They only become reliable weeks after infection so even if such tests were available now we would not have good data until late May.

When people such as Michelle O’Neill demand mass testing, they mean antigen tests (of who has it now). That is easy to demand, but mass tests divert vast resources from NHS frontline and do not tell us about people (maybe vast in number) who had it and recovered.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

A colleague of mine, who like all News Letter journalists has worked from home since mid March, had loss of taste, which means it is likely she had Covid-19, but she is better so antigen tests would miss her.

Mass testing worked for Germany and South Korea early in the crisis, but that is different to mass tests now. Even if UK infections are only low millions, then contacts of the infected will be high millions and almost impossible to trace.

When two weeks ago I said the informal evidence for widespread infections was strong, some critics dismissed anecdotes as unscientific. But it is almost all we have. Official case totals are useless because they just reflect the extent to which a country tests (and who it tests).

Some anecdotal evidence is of good quality. Dr Alan Stout of the BMA says, that pre lockdown, GPs in NI noticed an unusually high number of reported symptoms that might fit Covid-19.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Since I wrote on March 28 about the infected people I know, including a close relative, a neighbour has got it (now ill but stable). The list of famous infected folk still grows.

But even if UK infection levels are high and death rates under 1%, it does not mean coronavirus is just like ‘seasonal flu’. China months ago showed that it wreaks havoc with some people under age 60 (dramatically illustrated by Boris Johnson).

Nor does it mean lockdown ends soon. Even if higher case estimates are right, the 90% of uninfected people lack immunity.

If a vaccine does not appear until 2021, most nations will adapt a rolling return to normality to avoid economic ruin, and the herd immunity approach for which the UK was mocked. This might see schools open sooner than expected but probably means restrictions into 2021 – and vigilance in case virus flares up again.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

And a lower death rate will not mean that the UK handled this crisis well. It might yet be found to have been right about herd immunity but was pitifully ill-prepared in critical beds and protective gear.

Great Britain got a bit of extra time to prepare because Covid-19 arrived later, perhaps because it is an island. It arrived on this island later still, giving us even more time.

If death tolls end up low, it merely means we have been lucky.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor

—— ——

A message from the Editor:

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.

With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our advertisers - and consequently the revenue we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you taking out a digital subscription.

Subscribe to and enjoy unlimited access to the best Northern Ireland and UK news and information online and on our app. With a digital subscription, you can read more than 5 articles, see fewer ads, enjoy faster load times, and get access to exclusive newsletters and content. Visit now to sign up.

Our journalism costs money and we rely on advertising, print and digital revenues to help to support them. By supporting us, we are able to support you in providing trusted, fact-checked content for this website.

Alistair Bushe