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What exactly is happening with Delta in the UK - and what can Ireland learn from it?

Scientists advising the UK government expect the third wave of infection to peak in mid-August.

AS THE DELTA variant spreads across Ireland and the UK, England is set to lift all remaining Covid-19 restrictions with Scotland preparing a similar move – but what is the disease trajectory in the UK, and what does it tell us about how fast is Delta likely to spread in Ireland?

On Friday, the UK reported over 51,000 new cases, the highest number of daily infections since 15 January. 

UK daily cases graph

The number of people in hospital with Covid-19 in England as of 8 July is 2,210 – an increase of 42% on the previous week and the highest since 9 April.

Scientists advising the UK government expect the third wave of infection to peak in mid-August resulting in between 1,000 and 2,000 hospitalisations per day by then. 

It comes as UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares to ease all remaining Covid-19 restrictions in England on Monday, prompting the British Medical Association (BMA) to warn of “potentially devastating consequences” as a result. 

Hospital admissions of patients with Covid-19 increased by 34% in the week ending 4 July, according to Public Health England.

A total of 154,262 new cases were reported in that period also – the equivalent of 274.1 cases per 100,000 people and England’s highest rate since 28 January. 

It is still considerably lower than the second wave peak of 680.5 per 100,000, but as restrictions lift, the country faces a perfect storm of a more-transmissible variant, less or no restrictions, and a population not yet fully-vaccinated. 

patients in hospital graph

The north of England is recording the highest rate of Covid-19 with 613.4 cases per 100,000 people. 

Meanwhile, rates continue to rise in all age groups, but 20-29-year-olds record the highest rate at 614.3 cases per 100,000. 

The UK government’s decision to lift restrictions entirely and end mandatory face mask-wearing was criticised by BMA Chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul this week who said the government had reneged on its promise to be led by data and the impact on the NHS. 

Dr Nagpaul said ditching restrictions while a significant number of the population remains unvaccinated will allow Covid-19 to “tighten its grip” and drive up infection rates. 

patients on ventilation

On the ground, the effect of the infection rise is hitting home in certain parts of England. Garden waste collection in Coventry was this week suspended for two weeks after an increasing number of waste collection staff have had to isolate.

The city council said the rise was due to crews having contact with a person who tested positive for Covid-19 outside of work.

Andrew Walster, from the city council, said a “significant” number of bin staff had been told by NHS Test and Trace to self-isolate.

Like Ireland, the UK is in a race to get people vaccinated as Delta takes hold. 

Figures show that in England 66.5% of people are fully-vaccinated, in Wales 73.8% are fully-vaccinated, in Scotland 65.7% of people are fully-vaccinated and in Northern Ireland 65.4% of people are fully-vaccinated. 

A total of 60% of adults are fully vaccinated in the Republic of Ireland. 

While the UK may be Ireland’s ‘canary in a coalmine’ looking to the weeks and months ahead, Scotland perhaps serves as a more useful comparison than other parts. 

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Ronan Glynn recently noted that Scotland’s incidence of Covid-19 is about 2,000 cases per day with more than 500 people in hospital – a significant burden of infection in a country of a similar population size to Ireland. 

Two Scottish hospitals recently declared Code Black status meaning non-elective surgeries were cancelled.

On Thursday, 2,085 new cases of Covid-19 were reported in Scotland, and 545 people were in hospital. 

Scotland is set to move to Level 0 of its five-tier system on Monday, but restrictions will remain on physical distancing and the number of people meeting indoors and outdoors. 

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First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said that mask-wearing will remain compulsory for some time. 

The country, however, appears to have turned a corner reducing daily case numbers from almost 4,000 on 30 June to almost 2,000 on Thursday, an indication that perhaps anticipatory behaviour has kicked in. In other words, as people see cases rise they adjust their behaviour accordingly. 

In Northern Ireland – at times a bellwether for what’s to come down South – cases hit over 1,000 on Thursday as health officials urged people to get vaccinated. 

With all this in mind, what should we expect to see over the coming weeks?

Taoiseach Micheál Martin last week described England’s lifting of restrictions as a “free for all” and, amid rising hospital numbers in Scotland, said that what happens in the UK can easily “spill over ” into Ireland.

It’s been well-flagged that there will be a considerable rise in case numbers. Exponential growth has already begun, the chair of NPHET’s epidemiological modelling group Professor Philip Nolan said on Wednesday.

Delta now accounts for 80% of cases in Ireland, which in recent weeks have been mainly confined to younger people in their 20s, though evidence suggests that is ticking upwards into older age groups. 

There is a clear upwards trend in case numbers, rising from almost 800 on Wednesday to 1,000 on Thursday. Hospital admissions are also increasing from 10 to 20 admissions per 1,000 – still slower than previous peaks of 50 per 1,000. 

The question for public health officials in Ireland will be to what extent the public adjusts its behaviour as cases tick upwards, how quickly people can be protected through vaccination, and what impact a potential UK spill over will have. 

All eyes will be on England on Monday. 

Infographics by Emma Taggart

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