Second Covid wave could see twice as many deaths and would require reorganisation of NHS hospitals

A second wave of coronavirus could bring twice as many deaths as the first, experts have warned, in a report commissioned by the Chief Scientific Advisor.

A group of 37 scientists, from the Academy of Medical Sciences, was asked by Sir Patrick Vallance to model a reasonable worst case scenario for the upcoming winter, and advise the government on how to prevent it.

The experts warn that 119,000 people may die in hospital if a second wave hits while the NHS is dealing with a bad winter flu season.

Under such a doomsday scenario, the reproduction ‘R’ rate would rise to 1.7 by September, with infections peaking in January and February. 

The overall number of deaths may even be higher, as the report does not factor in deaths in care homes.

The authors say it is critical to reorganise NHS and social care so that coronavirus patients are kept away from others. Many people caught the virus in hospital, or in care homes after patients were discharged without being tested.

Widespread testing, ramped up contact tracing and nationwide surveillance is also vital to stay on top of the disease, the experts say, and they have called for wider uptake of the flu vaccine to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed.

“The window for action is now,” said report author Dame Anne Johnson Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at University College London. 

“Infection rates are low and we’ve got time to think, breathe, and get on top of things. 

“Every winter we see an increase in the number of people admitted to hospital and in the number of people dying in the UK. 

“We need to minimise coronavirus and flu transmission everywhere, and especially in hospitals and care homes. We need to get our health and social care, and the track, trace and isolate programme ready for winter. This can be done, but it must be done now.”

The team consisted of experts in infectious diseases, public health, statistics, meteorology and primary care.

The report warns that a new wave, combined with the NHS treatment backlog and the possibility of a flu epidemic, could pose a serious risk to health in the UK.

Winter is always difficult for the NHS, because infectious diseases are more common and conditions such as asthma, heart attack, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and stroke tend to worsen.  

The worst case scenario assumes that the government will not respond to rising cases with another widespread lockdown.

However the new projections have not factored in recent results from the dexamethasone trial, which could substantially reduce mortality, the authors admit.

The team also modelled two other scenarios where the R number was held at 1.1 and 1.5 and found deaths would be between 1,300 and 74,800 respectively. 

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