Avoiding scaremongering

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I want to share with you two examples of how the media’s handling of COVID-19 has been extremely unhelpful.  The public have a significant part to play in response to the pandemic and therefore needs accurate information in order to make informed decisions.

The first example was published in the Independent.  You can read the whole article here.  The key quote I want to draw your attention to is this.

“It is forecast that hospitalisations would need to hit 1,500 a day for the NHS to once again become overwhelmed by Covid-19 – a figure that could be reached within the next two months if certain measures are not reintroduced.”

There are a number of issues with this statement. The first is as to where the1,500 figure came from. It is worth remembering that hospital admissions peaked at around 4000 in the previous waves. We were also warned about the potential for 150-200,000 cases per day during the summer which would have led to 4,500-6,000 daily admissions.  The exact number of admissions that the NHS can cope with is uncertain because of a number of factors including if/where cases are concentrated and the other health issues that the NHS are likely to face. For example, a winter wave is likely to coincide with pressure due to other respiratory illnesses. However, to pluck the figure 1,500 from out of nowhere without reasoning and evidence does not seem responsible to me. Indeed, if we see an NHS crisis in this context through the winter, then the issue will not be with COVID but with how our NHS is funded and functions.

Secondly, the article clearly has an agenda demonstrated by the phrase “if measures are not reintroduced.”  It is important then to consider whether or not that is a certainty.  Part of the problem here is the loose language of “measures”. Which specific measures would the Independent like to see? Further-more there is the rock-solid certainty that cases will keep going up.

Hospitalisations are driven by case numbers. As the following graph shows, we currently see about ~3% of cases translated into admissions

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That means we would need to see 50k of new cases each day for there to be 1500 admissions per day. Now in the last couple of weeks, we’ve seen growth in UK cases to a daily average around the 35k mark with peaks over 40,000. It is possible from that to envisage a situation where cases could grow to 50,000. However, it is worth noting that after a period of gentle growth, we’ve seen cases start to fall in the last few days.

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The cause of that trend can be seen when looking at the Scottish and the English case numbers during September. 

We saw a dramatic increase in Scottish case numbers when their lockdown was lifted, other contributory factors included festivals and return to schools. However, Scottish cases appear to have peaked and are beginning to fall. Similarly, in England we saw some case growth again due to festivals, a bit of a fall off at the time Scottish cases were rising and then an increase after the bank holiday weekend driven by festivals again and return to school. However towards the end of last week English cases began to fall again so that across the UK we were seeing a significant reduction in cases.

This is important because case numbers enable us to predict the number of admissions about 7-10 days from now. So, if we were just looking back over the past week or two we would see a concerning increase in admissions. This will continue for a few more days. However, we can then expect admissions to fall having peaked at around 1100 per day.

What will happen in a month or two is uncertain. There are a range of opinions among those forecasting and modelling. A lot depends upon whether or not we have truly reached a level of population immunity, the potential for vaccine efficacy waning and the impact of decisions about booster jabs and vaccines for under 16s.  It is possible that we will see a peak in cases. However, we also know that due to the vaccine role out that cases do fall without measures being legally imposed. This is also partly due to voluntary behaviour changes. The important thing is to say that 1500 admissions per day are not certain -with or without the imposition of NPIs.

The other example is this tweet thread from Robert Peston. 

He seems to have a track record for tweeting big discoveries that tend to be not the scoops he thinks they are and not that accurate. There has already been substantial discussion about this matter. 

We now have a substantial majority of the adult population vaccinated. The vaccine gives between 60%-80% protection against infection and 90% against hospitalisation and death. This means that we were always going to have a significant number of people who would still risk infection and as vaccine coverage increased, statistically that would one day become a majority. Indeed if 100% of the population were vaccinated, that would mean that 100% of those getting ill and ending up in hospital would be vaccinated.

In other words, Peston’s shocking new discovery isn’t that new and isn’t really a discovery.  Furthermore, we have always known that this ongoing risk would exist.  However, the purpose of vaccination is that it significantly reduces the risk to a level where it increasignyl becomes similar to the risk from other health threats. There comes a time then when we have to recongise that as with other things there will still be some risk from COVID and it will be greater fro some than for others. However, we will need to accept that this cannot prevent us from going on with normal life.  Whether we have reached that point yet is something still being debated but the answer is not found in Peston’s analysis.

It is perhaps a bit late in the day for this appeal but I would still encourage our media to choose responsible reporting over the sensationalism we’ve seen over the past 18 months.