UK will be doing well to have winter death toll like bad flu season, says expert

Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter has warned there will be tens of thousands of coronavirus deaths without more stringent restrictions.

A woman blowing her nose
A woman blowing her nose

If the UK gets through winter with the same excess deaths as a bad flu season then it will have “done very well”, an expert has said.

Statistician Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter said there will be tens of thousands of coronavirus deaths this winter and very little can be done about it without more stringent restrictions.

But he told Times Radio on Sunday that looking at excess deaths the winter might look like a “bad flu season”.

Sir David, statistician and chairman of the Winton Centre for risk and evidence communication at the University of Cambridge, said: “It’s going to be a bad year, there are going to be tens of thousands of Covid deaths over the winter and I think there’s nothing much we can do about that unless we had absolutely stringent measures which would cause all sorts of other harms as well.

“Let’s look at excess deaths, just what is the total number of extra deaths over the winter and might very well look overall like a bad flu season, particularly as there’s unlikely to be much little flu.”

Sir David warned it is only due to the restrictions that it will be kept to this level.

He added: “There will be people who will say: ‘Oh, why did we have all this fuss, why did we have all these measures, when it’s only like a bad flu season?’

“Do not listen to them, this is real misinformation, the point is it’s only going to be like that because of the measures that have been taken.

“If we can get away with that, with something that looks like a bad flu year, then in fact we will have done very well.

“There is the potential for a lot of misinformation.”

Sir David said it is “perfectly reasonable” to go back to a regional-based approach to restrictions, including a tier system.

But he said there will be a price to pay for any loosening of restrictions over Christmas.

He added: “The whole basis that we are in at the moment is keeping a lid on things until the vaccine arrives.

“I think we are going to be going back to more of a fine-tuning mechanism rather than this extremely blunt instrument which is a national lockdown.

“If there’s got to be an exception it will be for a brief period over Christmas and that’s purely because it is Christmas.

“There will be a price to pay for it, obviously, you relax restrictions and infection rates go up, you constrain and infection rates will come down as they are going down at the moment.”

Sir David said while the data suggests rates are going down and he believes the reproduction number – which represents the average number of people someone with Covid-19 goes on to infect – is below 1, it is harder to reduce the rates after they have risen.

He added: “This is not a symmetrical thing, you don’t have one day off and one day on.

“It increases a lot faster than it gets better again – it is not a symmetric process.

“So if you get a burst of extra cases it takes more time to get things back to where they were before.”

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