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As soon as the government officially moves us to the ‘delay’ stage, it is effectively confirming that an epidemic IS coming. So on the basis of the information we currently have, what's the outlook?
Yesterday was the first day confirmed new cases in the UK exceeded those in China (67 in the UK vs 40 in China). Last week Chris Whitty told the select committee he saw ‘no reason in theory why the UK would go higher than China.’ So how bad did it get in China?
Chris Whitty used a figure of 20% of population in Wuhan province when he came in front of the select committee, but says those with symptoms are likely to be 5% or less. WHO figures are lower - only 0.1% of population - but there is likely to be significant under-reporting.
He also cautioned China could see a 2nd or even 3rd wave, possibly when some of the current extreme measures were relaxed. So overall he thinks it unlikely we could keep the numbers as low as 5% of UK population, but reasonable to hope it will end up being less than 20%.
Of course other parts of China including Beijing and Shanghai have fared much better than Hubei province and Wuhan, so we can also hope to do better than that in the UK.
Chris Whitty was much more certain about mortality rates being around 1%. So 10% of the population means around four times the annual average deaths for seasonal flu, but only slightly higher than when it peaked at just over 50,000 flu deaths in the winter of 2017-18.
Of course the right actions taken decisively could reduce those numbers significantly: we know more about the virus because of what has happened in China, Italy, Iran, South Korea and other countries. In particular we know about the risks to older people and how to reduce them.
Most importantly, we can learn how to flatten the peak and give the NHS the best possible chance of saving more lives. But there will also be political as opposed to scientific judgements: the right balance between slowing the virus and reducing economic disruption.
Final caveat: these numbers are constantly changing with new information. But from the outside this is what currently feels most likely.
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