The huge rise in new Covid-19 cases reported over the last two days should serve as a wake-up call, after a summer when political focus has been more on reopening the economy than the ongoing public health crisis. This autumn and winter, as the weather turns colder and far more of life begins to move indoors, the country is going to be treading on very thin ice, as it seeks to avoid the nightmare of a second wave of the virus.
Already, one of the main challenges is becoming clear: rising transmission among the young is threatening to provide the disease with a gateway back into the wider population. On Monday, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, said the rise in cases was largely among the under-25s, and in particular those aged 17 to 21. Outbreaks in dozens of schools will add to the sense of trepidation.
There are various possible explanations as to why the pattern of reported infections has changed. Young people generally suffer milder Covid-19 symptoms and are more likely to be asymptomatic. In the torrid early months of spring, when testing was largely limited to the more seriously ill, such cases would not have shown up in the figures.
The new demographic spread in infections may also be a result of older age groups exercising greater vigilance, given what is now known about the differential impact of the disease. And having been cooped up for months, some young people evidently took the easing of lockdown restrictions in the summer as a licence to more or less return to normal.
The picture, then, is not a simple one. But there is a risk that the less serious impact of Covid-19 on young people, and low current levels of Covid-related hospital admissions, may generate a lethal sense of complacency. In France, where rising transmission rates among the young were first noted some weeks ago, the virus now appears to be spreading to other parts of the population, with more serious consequences. An August surge in new cases translated into a 15% rise in hospital admissions last week, prompting one leading epidemiologist to warn that if the spread remained unchecked, a “critical situation” was possible by December.
Mr Hancock was right, therefore, to urge young people to maintain social distancing, and to keep taking measures to avoid spreading the virus to vulnerable sections of the population. But given the natural inclination of young people to socialise and the potential for asymptomatic spread, it is also essential that the government does its job and finally delivers a properly comprehensive Covid testing regime across the country.
At the end of the month, university students will arrive in towns and cities across the UK to begin the new academic year. The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) warned last week that “significant outbreaks” on campuses are likely, which could drive up rates of transmission nationwide. It has called for a ramping up of test-and-trace capacity. But in York, for example, where 40,000 students are expected, the vice-chancellor of the university, Charlie Jeffery, has expressed concern over the limited number of tests available daily in the city.
Some institutions are opening on-campus testing facilities. But there is no sign whatsoever of the “national oversight” of the situation that Sage has called for. Given what we now know about the epidemiological profile of Covid-19 as we go into autumn, if that remains the case, it will be a dereliction of the government’s duty.