The number of new UK Covid-19 cases reported daily has fallen for six days in a row – suggesting that the third wave of the pandemic may have peaked.
However, it is still too early to see the effects of the 19 July unlocking in the figures. A Downing Street spokesman said: “We should still expect to see a rise in case numbers given the move to Step Four last week. The Prime Minister thinks we’re not out of the woods yet.”
But what is behind the fall in cases? It is not likely to be a decline in the number of tests in England: the test positivity rate has remained constant and even shown signs of falling, and the drop in cases is too large to be attributable to testing.
One factor is likely to be the school holidays: the figures show cases are dropping faster among younger people, in every region of England (see graph).
Another possibility is that the recent decline simply marks the end of a temporary rise in cases during Euro 2020, with people catching the virus at pubs and gatherings while watching England play. There are signs in the data that infections rose steeply among younger males following England games and that this effect now seems to have subsided. A similar effect was seen in Scottish cases shortly after the team’s tournament exit.
Increasing numbers of people self isolating could also be helping. In the latest week of figures (to 14 July), 607,486 alerts were sent by the NHS app – the highest since the start of the pandemic. Dr Stephen Griffin, associate professor at the School of Medicine, University of Leeds, said: “The ongoing coverage of the so-called ‘pingdemic’, unhelpful as it has been, actually reflects the fact that, in response to a large surge of infections, a great many people have been asked to self-isolate recently and this could have a direct impact upon transmission.”
A growing number of people may also now have some related immunity to Covid-19, either through vaccination or infection. According to the latest ONS Infection Survey, 92 per cent of adults would have tested positive for antibodies against coronavirus at the end of June. Recent good weather could also have played a part, with increasing outdoor mixing as opposed to more transmission-friendly indoor gatherings.
The fall in cases is welcome, whatever is behind it. A corresponding drop in hospitalisations and deaths is likely to follow. However, it is still unclear whether this is a long-term trend, especially given the recent relaxation in restrictions.
Oxford University professor James Naismith, the director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, said: “For me the next milestone will be the ONS data release on Friday 21 August – we will know for sure the effect of the end of the lockdown. It is important to understand that the daily test numbers will only begin to see the effect of the end of lockdown towards the end of this week. Many scientists, myself included, expect the end of lockdown to see a rise in cases. However, we have been wrong before and we will be wrong in the future. Only charlatans claim omniscience. This is a new disease and we are learning more every day.”