“We are past the peak,” Chris Whitty announced earlier this week.
After a winter crisis which has seen record coronavirus infections, hospitalisations and deaths – not to mention two national lockdowns – it was a welcome claim from England’s chief medical officer.
And the two maps (below) by Imperial College London researchers demonstrate the extent to which the picture should continue to improve in the next two weeks.
The deeper the shade of red on the maps – which are modelled on testing data and the assumption no further government interventions will be imposed – the more likely an area is to be a COVID-19 “hotspot” of more than 100 infections per 100,000 people. The lighter the shade of grey, the less likely it is to be a hotspot.
The seven-day forecast map incorporating Friday (5 February) shows COVID infections – despite the overall number continuing to fall – remain high across the nation. The map shows dozens of likely hotspot areas in the deepest shade of red.
Contrast this with the seven-day forecast map in two weeks’ time (19 February). There is a dramatic fall in the number of red hotspot areas. This time, there are dozens of grey areas – particularly in the south of England – which the researchers forecast are extremely unlikely to be COVID hotspots.
Watch: We are past the peak, says Chris Whitty
When Prof Whitty said the UK is “past the peak” on Wednesday, he added the caveat that COVID hospitalisations remain very high.
So while these infection forecast maps do not signal an imminent return to normality – as one Conservative MP called for on Thursday once the top nine priority groups have been vaccinated – it at least offers more encouragement.
Boris Johnson has repeatedly said 8 March is the earliest date England’s lockdown restrictions may start to be eased – including the top priority of reopening schools – but he hasn’t said when it could be fully lifted.
Earlier this week, health secretary Matt Hancock outlined four factors which will decide when the lockdown ends: deaths, hospitalisations, new variants of the virus and the vaccine rollout.
Prof Whitty, meanwhile, is known for regularly urging extreme caution, and has previously stated restrictions should be lifted gradually, and that curbs won’t just “suddenly stop”.
According to reports on Friday, outdoor socialising and sport could return “within weeks” of schools reopening.
A “roadmap” detailing the stages of easing lockdown is set to be published on 22 February.
Watch: What you can and can't do during England's third national lockdown