Making a bad decision is never a good one. But there is nothing worse than jumping into a fire when all your instincts are telling you to go to the other side.
Matt Hancock, the health secretary, made the point in the House of Commons last week. He said he had heard from China in January 2020 that the virus was spreading asymptomatic, but emphasized that this was not the case.
“The formal advice I was receiving was that asymptomatic transmission is unlikely, and we shouldn’t base policy on it,” he said.
“I bitterly regret that I didn’t overrule that scientific advice at the start and say we should proceed on the basis that there is asymptomatic transmission until we know that that isn’t, rather than the other way around.”
I have limited sympathy for Mr. Hancock. A quick Google Scholar search would have told you that the spread of past coronaviruses, and indeed influenza, the disease on which the UK's pandemic plan was based, has an asymptomatic component.
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On Monday, the prime minister is expected to announce an opening on June 21, when "all legal restrictions" will be lifted.
As he said in his statement on Saturday: “In order to have an irreversible roadmap, you've got to be cautious.”
It makes sense not to fuel the rising tide of the new delta variant that has emerged in India, but can a fire that is already spreading exponentially be stopped without reversing course and cutting new firewalls?
That's the real question on Whitehall's mind right now. Will we be lucky and see the third wave erupt briefly before running out when the vaccines stop? Or will it grow and threaten to consume us like others because we cannot extinguish the first sparks?
Following the data
The raw data does not look good. Delta variant cases have been increasing dramatically from a low base since early May, and in the past seven days it has averaged about 5,000 new cases per day.
It now appears to have settled at or around R1.5 with a doubling time of nine days. If you start with 5,000 cases and then triple, you'll reach 40,000 cases per day in early July. If you double that number again, it will reach 80,000 cases after nine days, a number that exceeds the peak in January.
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Other data shows that delta cases in the UK started in young people but are increasing across age groups and even social class.
A similar pattern was seen in the United States last summer when a wave of virus began among young adults in Florida and other southern states. At first, people called it the "Classic Epidemic", but then it made its way into the older and more vulnerable age groups.
Vaccines and Immunity
Cases, of course, are only a concern if they lead to hospitalization, and this time we have vaccines to protect us.
But here too, the news is not entirely good with the delta variant. The latest data from Public Health England (PHE) indicates that the vaccine is effective against symptomatic diseases of 33% after one dose and 81% after two doses.
Covid mathematician and fashion designer James Ward estimated that this should rise to roughly 80 percent and 95 percent, respectively, when it comes to protection against "serious illness and death."
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On the one hand, these numbers are reassuring, but the supporting evidence is incomplete. PHE is still waiting for evidence of how good the AstraZeneca vaccine, which accounts for about 70 per cent of all the UK's punches, will be after two doses against the delta variant.
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