Record Rise in “Cases” – But October Still Normal For Respiratory Disease

Yesterday saw the biggest daily rise yet in positive tests reported: 26,688. The last three days have each seen significant increases, though it’s worth noting that by date of specimen there is still no major upward trend since the start of the month. That may change in the coming days (the column for October 19th admittedly looks high already) but relying on reporting date can give a false impression of trends.

What’s really missing in these numbers though is context. Were more tests done on October 19th than 18th, so the apparent rise is just an artefact of the increase in testing? And how many of these “cases” are false positives? As Sir Patrick Vallance said on Tuesday, SARS-CoV-2 is now likely to be an endemic virus that comes back in some form each flu season. Infections are rising now because it’s autumn and many respiratory viruses spread in autumn, plus the spring lockdowns will have left some areas with lower levels of immunity. It’s notable that London, where infections were falling before lockdown as Chris Whitty admitted to MPs, has yet to see any major increase in hospital admissions or deaths.

But if Covid infections, hospital admissions and deaths do keep rising throughout the winter there would be nothing unusual about that. Herd immunity doesn’t mean no one gets infected anymore, especially in the colder months. It means enough people have enough resistance to prevent a repeat of the spring and keep it within normal bounds.

COVID-19 isn’t the only respiratory disease around of course. But this year the rest are being strangely timid. Flu and pneumonia hospital admissions and deaths have been trending well below average since May with no sign of change yet, leaving Covid largely having the field to itself. That’s one reason the rise in Covid hospital admissions isn’t likely to overwhelm the NHS – there’s been a corresponding fall in admissions for flu and pneumonia.

If winter 2020 is a typical year then it’s likely to get a lot worse than this – not because we’re in the midst of a “second wave” but because it’s winter. If those panicking and calling for lockdowns think October’s bad, wait till they see a typical December. While the few journalists who have been asking the right questions haven’t been able to get the data from the NHS that would let us properly compare 2020 with a normal year (what are they hiding?), Carl Heneghan and co have tracked down this graph released in 2017 in response to an MP’s request.