Back in October, members of the Joint Universities Pandemic and Epidemiological Research and the University of Warwick’s School of Life Sciences, who have been highly active in modelling the pandemic ever since infections first began to rise back in early 2020, published a set of updated projections. It aims, as so many of the group’s previous reports, to predict the developments of infections and deaths. But this time, their lens is fairly foreshortened, focusing just on the coming months through to the beginning of Summer 2022.
Even at only two months’ remove, a number of the JUNIPER consortium’s predictions have proven eerily prophetic. So, in light of Boris Johnson’s recent revival of masking guidance and his request that those who can work from home, perhaps it is worth taking a closer look at this short paper to get a flavour of what our Winter and Spring might look like – and what we can do to keep ourselves and our families safe.
This, as the premise of the group’s predictions:
We take the scenarios in which precautionary behaviour decays to zero (pre-COVID levels) by December 2021 or June 2022 and assume that an external event occurs which leads to a doubling of infection every week or every two weeks. This can be conceptualised as the invasion of a novel variant, but could potentially be driven by other factors (such as waning infection-derived or vaccine-derived immunity).
Now, reading this in the future, this seems like more than a plausible premise for the model. It’s only been a week or so since the name ‘Omicron’ became firmly lodged in everyday language. And when we all got the news of the variant’s discovery, where were we? Squeezed in between friends on someone else’s sofa? In a crowded pub, at a crowded concert, on a crowded train? Doing our weekly mask-less food shop? When had the fingers which scrolled through the news article last seen a decent anti-bac? In the clinical language of the report, precautionary behaviour has certainly decayed to zero.
And let’s not forget that currently, the R-number (remember that?) is hovering around 1.0 and 1.1 in England, 0.9 and 1.1 in Scotland, 0.8 and 1.0 in Wales and 1.1 and 1.3 in Northern Ireland. At such rates, 100 infections could easily become 400 in a fortnight – indeed, health officials have suggested that Omicron infections are doubling every two or three days.
In any case, there are four variables at play in determining the number of lives that future waves claim. One, of course, is how early restrictions begin to be eased. Another is speed at which precautionary measures are eased. It also depends on the strength of protection provided by our vaccines. And, finally, it depends on the uptake of the vaccines.
Based on shifts in these variables, then, the model predicts a couple of trajectories. One of the researchers, Professor Matt Keeling states ‘that early sudden release of restrictions is likely to lead to a large wave of infection, whereas gradually easing measures over a period of many months could reduce the peak of future waves.’ It is unclear just how ‘many months’ a safe easing of restrictions would need but perhaps, the study suggests, fully removing restrictions might have to wait until January 2022.
Dire predictions aside, the report lays out a clear cause for optimism in the report: there are a whole bunch of easy, everyday precautions that Britons to keep themselves safe. Perhaps the most obvious precaution would be taking the opportunity to work from home if you can. But Keeling says that ‘some measures, such as test, trace, and isolate’ will be ‘necessary’ throughout the Winter. Keeping tabs on infections will require regular testing, akin to the sorts of schemes most schools are using, which rely on rapid tests. This is something that all of us can do, monitoring ourselves and our families, everyday.
Ever since coronavirus hit British shores, the Lab Solutions blog has been compiling advice for small businesses and regular Britons on staying safe during the pandemic. In fact, we were one of the first to get behind lateral flow testing for COVID-19, providing our customers with accredited and reliable rapid tests with an easy-to-use scanning app for authentic results.