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23 April 2020updated 04 Sep 2021 12:49pm

Have we passed the coronavirus peak? The answer depends on where you live

The highest point in fatalities may have already happened, but there is significant regional variation.

By Ben Walker

Last week the chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty announced that Britain has “probably” reached the peak of the coronavirus crisis, fueling hopes of a return to normality in the not-too-distant future. One week after these remarks, can we now say that we have indeed passed the peak?

Every afternoon the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) announces new Covid-19 related fatalities. These are the numbers that garner the greatest reach on social media, in news alerts and on TV screens. For the past fortnight the average number of new UK deaths each day has been slightly under 800, and consistently so. But we should not take these numbers at face value.

Firstly, they only cover deaths in hospitals — not those in homes and care homes. Secondly, the daily figures announced are not of deaths which happened that day, but deaths that the DHSC were able to ascertain, over the last 24 hours, were Covid-19 related. The deaths themselves may have happened days or even weeks earlier.

Deaths by date have now been provided by NHS trusts — in England at least — and show a near-consistent day-by-day fall in the number of deaths since April 8. That implies the peak of deaths may have happened more than two weeks ago.

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The peak of new cases was therefore likely to have been earlier still, as it takes time for someone to get sick from, and succumb to, Covid-19.

The government is also publishing data on the number of people in hospital with “illnesses related to Covid-19” — and these show a similar picture. The number of patients slowed its rate of ascent around 5 April, and is now actively falling — by 2,000 since last Monday.

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London saw the biggest surge in demand at the end of March and start of April, but is also now seeing the fastest drop. Since Easter Monday the number of Covid-19 patients in the capital has fallen by more than 20 per cent.

That’s good news for London, but it raises the question: are the figures for the UK as a whole being skewed by the capital? Just as Italy is further ahead in its “curve” of cases than the UK, is London further along than, say, the north of England?

To some extent, yes. Hospital patients in Scotland, Wales and the south-east of England are near-unchanged compared with last week, whereas the Midlands and Yorkshire are down 15 per cent, and the north-west and West Country are down 9 per cent. The east of England is the outlier, with the number of Covid-19 patients up 7 per cent.

Considered as a whole, the UK does appear to be well past its peak. Or, past a peak. Whether there are others will depend on what happens next: when, and how, the lockdown begins to be lifted. “Passing the peak” is only the first stage in a long fight.