Collating the figures for the weekly Independent SAGE Covid briefing, it became clear in the last week or two that something unusual was happening in the South East of England.
Despite tier two restrictions, which should have been enough to significantly slow the spread of the virus, London and the South East were seeing sustained and rapid rises.
On top of this, across the country we were seeing rises in almost every local authority under tier two and the majority of local authorities under tier three. Something strange was going on.
We wondered whether these rises in cases might be attributable to changes in behaviour – people relaxing in the false sense of security provided by the government’s Christmas mixing plans, or letting their guards down in response to the good news of the vaccine roll out.
On Friday night when news of the suspected increased transmissibility of the B117 variant of the virus was broken – a variant which, according to The New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) potentially transmits 70% more effectively than the variants we have been dealing with all year – the rapid rises in London and the South East started to make sense.
“Now is the time for Boris Johnson to be brave, to make unpopular decisions – in short, to lead. Now is the time to act. For many, Boxing day will be too late.”
The situation is evolving rapidly. After convening an emergency meeting of the cabinet on Friday evening, the prime minister announced new tougher tier four restrictions for London and much of the South East, as well as tighter Christmas plans for the whole country.
Thousands fled London that evening to avoid the new tier four travel ban. On Monday, in a press conference convened to allay fears of the impact of UK travel bans to many European countries, Chief Scientific Officer Patrick Vallance informed us that the new variant was “everywhere”.
So, why aren’t tougher measures being implemented to suppress the spread? Why are we waiting for areas in tiers one, two and three to level-up with the current tier four areas?
Yesterday saw the single highest number of reported cases ever across the UK, at nearly 37,000. More Covid deaths were announced yesterday in England, at 608, than at any point since April. With increases in death figures almost certainly locked in for the next few weeks – reflecting the recent rises in cases – these figures are only going to get worse.
“Although we are not 100% certain, all the evidence points towards B117 being a significantly more transmissible strain of the Sars-CoV-2 virus. Waiting for absolute certainty before taking action could be catastrophic.”
In particular, tier two regions that border tier four regions are seeing extremely rapid rises in cases – significantly faster than those tier two regions which don’t border tier four. It is clear that the spread of the new variant has not been constrained to tier four regions.
Hospitals in many areas of the UK are already creaking under the strain – ambulances queueing to off-load patients, staff off sick, hospitals cancelling operations or only able to accept patients with life-threatening conditions.
With hospitalisation admissions rising rapidly in the South East and London, reflecting the rises in cases before the regions went into tier 4, hospitals face the very real possibility of becoming overwhelmed. Similar patterns are likely to be repeated in the other regions currently in tier two if nothing is done to slow the spread there.
Although we are not 100% certain, all the evidence points towards B117 being a significantly more transmissible strain of the Sars-CoV-2 virus. Waiting for absolute certainty before taking action could be catastrophic. We don’t need to see the rapid rises in cases in tier two regions turn into hospitalisations to know that the situation there will deteriorate rapidly, as it has done in the South East.
If there is one lesson we should have learned from our response to the pandemic so far, it is that fast decisive action always pays dividends. If ever there was a time for this government to be decisive this is it. With the virus spreading as fast as it is, even three days will make a huge difference.
At every stage, from the initial outbreak in the spring to the relapse in the autumn and the dithering over Christmas plans, the government has acted too slowly. Now is the time for Boris Johnson to be brave, to make unpopular decisions – in short, to lead. Now is the time to act. For many, Boxing day will be too late.
Kit Yates is a senior lecturer in Mathematical Biology at the University of Bath and member of Independent SAGE.