While scientists speculate that coronavirus could be with us for months to come, public health officials are trying to work out when the virus might peak, and how its spread can be slowed.
In fact, despite measures such as banning mass gatherings, cancelling sporting events and encouraging people to work from home, the worst is almost certainly still to come in terms of the UK’s peak number of cases.
So when is the peak and how long until the virus is stopped?
When will the virus peak in Britain?
Professor Chris Whitty, England’s Chief Medical Officer, said on March 12 that he expects the UK would reach the peak of its coronavirus outbreak in about 10 to 14 weeks. “If you move too early, people get fatigued,” he said, when asked about how to respond effectively to the virus. “This is a long haul.”
That timeframe would mean that the number of infections would not peak before the Easter break, but could hit the UK hardest in the May half-term holidays.
The Department of Health has advised that the peak is likely in about three months when 95 per cent of the infections are expected to take place. It means that most people will contract the virus between late May and late June.
The Prime Minister said this week that the most “dangerous period is not now, but some weeks away, depending on how fast it spreads”.
Experts hope that the UK’s response will push the peak beyond the normal end of the flu season in April and into the summer, when the NHS will be under less strain.
Why is the peak expected then?
Modelling by the Government and Public Health England suggests that there will be a slow growth of new cases each day – as has been the case in recent weeks – before the number of infections is expected to leap. This is at least partly because the virus is highly infectious and it is possible to be infected without presenting symptoms, which makes it hard to detect and control the spread.
If could also depend on seasonality. Britain will lie at the centre of a coronavirus danger zone throughout March and April, scientists believe.
If temperatures and humidity follow a similar pattern to last year, the UK climate will create the perfect breeding ground for the virus, according to a new study.
Weather records of where the virus has been spreading rapidly (the map below illustrates the number of cases worldwide) show similar average temperatures of between 5 to 11 degrees Celsius and humidity of 47 to 79 per cent, which is similar to laboratory conditions in which coronavirus thrives.
However as warmer temperatures emerge it could die out or be pushed into winter in the southern hemisphere.
Read more: Here’s what we know about Covid-19
Will the ‘delay’ phase work?
The British government is now at the “delay” phase of its virus response, which means that the possibility of containing the virus has passed and now steps must be taken to delay the peak.
An assumption is that the UK has about four weeks before it faces issues like Italy, which has had to shut down schools, businesses and entire neighbourhoods.
France and Ireland are among the European countries to have closed all schools, universities and nurseries.
What could slow the peak?
The Government is keen to create a “herd immunity” to reduce the peak. This means that as more people get the disease it helps to increase the immunity to the disease across the country, and in theory it reduces transmission.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, insists that some of the social distancing measures in place, including self-isolating for seven days if symptoms present, are “actually quite extreme” and that timing is key when it comes to trying to halt the spread of the virus.
He said: “If you suppress something very, very hard, when you release those measures it bounces back [the disease] and it bounces back at the wrong time.
“Our aim is to try and reduce the peak, broaden the peak, not suppress it completely.
Mr Vallance said that by building a herd immunity, “we protect those who are most vulnerable”.
However, critics have raised concerns that the number of infections needed to build herd immunity could lead to thousands of deaths.
How to prepare and what to expect
The single most important thing you can do to protect yourself is to keep your hands clean by washing them frequently with soap and water or a hand sanitising gel.
Try to avoid touching your mouth, nose or eyes with unwashed hands – something we all do unconsciously on average about 15 times an hour.
Other tips include:
- Carry a hand sanitiser with you to make frequent cleaning of your hands easy
- Always wash your hands before you eat or touch your face
- Be especially careful about touching things and then touching your face in busy airports and other public transport systems
- Carry disposable tissues with you, cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze and dispose of the tissue carefully (catch it, bin it, kill it)
- Do not share snacks from packets or bowls that others are dipping their fingers into
- Avoid shaking hands or cheek kissing if you suspect viruses are circulating
- Regularly clean not only your hands but also commonly used surfaces and devices you touch or handle
Read more: How is the coronavirus spread and how can I protect myself?