Covid 4,000 deaths a day scenario ‘needs checking’, urge scientists

Scenarios estimating 4,000 deaths a day from coronavirus presented when the Government announced a new English lockdown have been criticised by experts.

But one scientist said that even if those models were wrong, the country is still looking at 500 deaths a day in three to four weeks and warned that if nothing is done this could rise above 1,000 per day.

Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence Based Medicine at Oxford University, said that the graphs used at Saturday’s Downing Street press conference with estimates of Covid deaths were based on models from three weeks ago.

In a blog post written with Dr Daniel Howdon, senior research fellow in health economics at the University of Leeds, Prof Heneghan said one of the models had since revised down its estimated number of deaths.

The pair said on Monday that the University of Cambridge and Public Health England (PHE) model had estimated 1,000 deaths by November 1 but Government data showed an average of “just over 200”.

The university’s MRC biostatistics unit has since revised its projected deaths down from 588 on October 30 to 497 on November 15, the pair added.

The PA news agency understands that further models were submitted to Government scientific advisory groups as recently as last week.

Prof Heneghan and Dr Howdon said: “The slides leaked to the BBC on estimated Covid-19 deaths and presented at the Government press conference on the October 31 were based on different models from at least three weeks ago.

“Two SAGE [Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] model estimates have already proven to be invalid.

“We consider these analyses need checking with the raw data to verify the estimates against the actual death data and further verify whether the lower estimates reflect the actual data.”

Shoppers at a Costco in Birmingham
Shoppers at a Costco in Birmingham

Their comments came after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced a new national lockdown in England on Saturday.

Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, said that because of the time lag between infections and deaths, waiting for a model to prove accurate risked further deaths if no action was taken.

He said: “A thousand deaths a day by mid to late December is something I would accept as a reasonable estimate if we wait another two to three weeks without doing something.

“I would suggest the country doesn’t want to see 1,000 deaths a day and this is what the government is trying to avoid.

“Sadly, it is too late to prevent 500 a day.

“This is the problem with exponential growth and the three to four week delay between infection and death – if we wait for proof of 500 deaths a day before acting then we most likely won’t avoid 1,000 deaths a day. If we wait for proof of 1,000 then we are locked into 2,000.”

Professor Neil Ferguson, of Imperial College London, said that the 4,000 deaths a day scenarios were “preliminary work” to create a new “reasonable worst case planning scenario”.

Professor Neil Ferguson
Professor Neil Ferguson

He added: “SPI-M [Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling] undertakes a wide range of modelling for government.

“The ‘up to 4,000 deaths a day’ scenarios represent preliminary work to generate a new reasonable worst case planning scenario to assist NHS and other Government planning.

“The reasonable worst case is intended to be pessimistic, so these scenarios assumed an R value of 1.3-1.5 and that the tier system would have minimal impact.”

Dr Howdon said that the variation in the different models emphasised the high degree of uncertainty but said many of them had been “a long way off” in their predictions.

He added: “What we have done is look at the data and try to compare it to reality.

“Ultimately, if you compare them [the models] to the observed reality, they have generally been a long way off.”

According to the most recent Government data published on Sunday, the UK seven-day average number of reported deaths within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test was 260 a day between October 26 to November 1.

The latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) shows that the number of deaths registered in England and Wales between October 10-16 was 6.8% above the five-year average.

It was the sixth week in a row that deaths were above the five year average, according to the ONS figures.