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Is coronavirus really in retreat in the UK?

England is approaching a significant relaxation of lockdown on Saturday, while in Scotland, outdoor cafes and beer gardens will begin to reopen from Monday. But with rises in infection cropping up around the UK is Covid-19 really on the wane?

Is coronavirus in retreat in the UK?

The short answer is: yes, it is, but not fast enough.

New confirmed cases of Covid-19 are falling in the UK, as are deaths, with 576 new cases reported on Thursday compared with 8,719 on 12 April. Experts say that is good news, but they still have concerns.

“Although case numbers are lowering in the UK, they are not falling as fast as we would like them to be,” said Dr Michael Head, a senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton.

He said the rate of decline of both new cases and recorded deaths is slowing down. “Maybe we’d expect to see that a little bit as the country opens up; what we don’t want is for there to be enough cases hanging around so that they seed a second big outbreak.”

Is the situation the same across the four nations?

Devi Sridhar, a professor of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, said there were important differences, with cases in double digits in Wales, confirmed cases in Scotland below ten a day, and very few cases in Northern Ireland.

“If we look at the latest ONS survey [which only covers England] over the last two weeks there is definitely a flatlining and not [a] consistent decrease,” she said, adding that England was driving the overall UK trend.

Sridhar also highlighted the different strategies, with Scotland aiming to reach zero new cases, but England apparently setting the bar lower.

“It seems like in England – listening to deputy [chief medical officer] Jenny Harries, listening to CMO Chris Whitty – that the idea is there is going to be a substantial amount of virus circulating and they are going to be using localised lockdowns to try to keep a check on it,” she said.

How worried should we be about localised outbreaks?

According to Head: “We just need a few cases here and there for community transmission to start up again … We then might be in the same situation as we were a few weeks back with large numbers of cases and deaths again.”

Sridhar said this raised another question: “The challenge is going to be how many times can you actually lock people down? You can imagine if this happens again, I think you will have social unrest.”

What are the chances of a second wave?

A key factor will be what happens after lockdown is eased and people mingle in pubs, restaurants and other locations.

“We currently are on a knife [edge] as to whether [there will be] a second wave or not,” Head said. “I think we do need the next four to six weeks to tell us, because as these measures are relieved then people are mixing once more.”

Sridhar said that unless people changed their behaviour compared with the pre-coronavirus era, for example by maintaining social distancing, infections would rise. “We will have a repeat of March, because we have a similar number of cases in the community [as we did then],” she said.

She said test and trace programmes would be crucial for outbreak control, while Head noted that rapid data-sharing would be needed to help local authorities spot and tackle any outbreaks – something that has been a matter of controversy in the Leicester outbreak.

Will we eradicate Covid-19 in the UK, or is it here to stay?

It is unlikely the disease will be stamped out, at least in the short term. While experts say a vaccine developed by the University of Oxford is the best hope for a Covid-19 vaccine this year, the timelines remain uncertain and, even if it is released, experts have cautioned it may not offer complete protection.

“We need a very effective vaccine that needs to be available everywhere in the world – essentially, that is the end game,” Head said. “That is not going to happen at any point soon. That is more than one year ahead, probably two or three years ahead minimum, I reckon, before we can say we have completely got rid of Covid-19.”

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