COVID: Light at the end of the tunnel?

Covid germ

Over 80% of UK adults have now received their first vaccination, and over 60% are fully protected, so is there finally some light at the end of the COVID tunnel?

With the Indian variant now driving up the number of infections and the final phase of lockdown easing still to come, there is still some uncertainty. So, if we look at the numbers, what are they telling us?

Cases are starting to rise again

The easing of lockdown in the spring, coupled with the appearance of the Indian variant in the UK have combined to start pushing case numbers up again.  Yet this has thankfully not translated into substantial increases in numbers of hospitalisations or deaths.  So, what do we see if we take a closer look at the numbers?

The trends

Perhaps if we start by plotting the history of COVID infections in the UK over the past year we might be able to see some trends. 

You are probably familiar with government graphs showing trends in cases or trends in deaths etc.  They have appeared on the news often enough over the past year after all.  But often we don’t see all the information plotted together on the same chart and that can make it tricky to see how, for example, cases are translating into hospital admissions.

However, if we chart new cases, hospital admissions and deaths together on the same graph we get the following:

UK Covid Trends: June 2020 - June 2021

The variant effect

Well, we can clearly see the trends in case numbers; these are by far and away the biggest numbers on the chart after all.  We can also mark some key dates on the chart for context – like when the Kent variant was first identified, when vaccine roll out began and when we first spotted the Indian variant in the UK. 

This chart clearly shows us how cases rose in the UK after the Kent variant popped up in the Autumn of 2020.  We can also see just how bad things got in December/January, with the big spike in new cases really standing out.  And since late January we can clearly see how new case numbers tailed away to a low level during the spring.  Unfortunately, we can also see how new case numbers have started rising again in June.

But what about hospitalisations and deaths?  These numbers are also plotted on the chart.  But, oh dear!  It’s very hard to see the trend in either because the numbers are so small relative to new case numbers.  We can just about make out that the numbers for hospitalisations and deaths experienced an uptick in December/January but otherwise the trend line looks flat.

This is the main reason why we rarely see all three of these things plotted together – doing so makes it hard to see what is happening in terms of hospital admissions or deaths.

So how can we visualise the COVID trends in a more accessible way?

The raw data does not lend itself to easily comparing all three measures together in a single visual.  The case numbers dwarf the rest of the information to such a degree that it mostly obscures our ability to see any trends at all in the other measures.

One way to get around this problem is to create an Index. 

If we create an Index for each of our three key measures (cases, hospital admissions and deaths) then this makes a direct comparison much easier to represent visually.  As with any Index we need to set a base score of 100 for each measure.  In this case, let’s take 100 as equal to the average number recorded for each measure over the past year. 

The average number of cases over the past year turns out to be around 12,000 per day.  So, if we set that as equal to 100, we can create an index for cases based around it.  The same approach sets the Index for hospital admissions at 100 being equal to the average number for the period (c.950) and in the case of deaths, the average is c.240. 

Now if we use this to re-plot our graph using these Indexes, it is much easier to see how trends in these three measures might relate to one another.

UK Covid Trends INDEX: June 2020 - June 2021

Cases led to deaths last winter

Now it is much clearer to see just how the trends in hospital admissions and deaths mirror / follow the trends in reported cases.  We can also see the slight time lag involved.

In the winter spike, it is now apparent that the peak in case numbers very quickly translated to peaks in hospital admissions and deaths.

So, what can we tell about where we are today based on past trends?

Well, if we look at the recent data, from April onwards, we can see cases rising again in May/June but, currently this has not translated into any notable rise in hospitalisations or deaths.  The vaccination program is having the desired effect in terms of depressing the numbers of the most serious cases, even if it has not prevented a rise in cases overall.

But now things are different

We can learn more if we compare what happened during the last significant wave (Autumn of 2020) with what is happening now. 

Back in September/October 2020 we had some similar conditions here in the UK – lockdown had been eased after cases had fallen to a low level over the summer for one thing.  However, as restrictions eased, so we began to see an increase in cases.  We also experienced the introduction of a new, more infectious, strain of COVID in the form of the Kent variant.

It would seem that the UK is now facing a similar set of circumstances: we have eased restrictions after having brought down the case numbers to a low level but we are also having to live with emergence of a new and more infectious variant (Indian rather than Kentish this time).

So, what do we see if we directly compare what happened in the Autumn of 2020 with what’s happening now using our Indexed visualisation?

UK Covid Trends INDEX: Summer/Autumn 2020 v Spring/Summer 2021

This makes it is even easier to compare the two periods directly.  And the more focused comparison makes it possible for us to mark a few other key dates on these graphs for context – specifically, dates when lockdowns were eased.

The Autumn data shows that, as September progressed, we saw a rapid rise in all three measures: cases, hospitalisations and deaths. 

The recent data shows a less rapid but nevertheless significant rise in cases, even though the Indian variant is more infectious than the Kent variant.  On the negative side, it looks like this rise is set to continue.

The vaccination effect

On the positive side we can see that hospitalisations and deaths are not rising at anywhere near the alarming rate that we saw last Autumn.  We have seen no more than a slight increase so far. In this respect it looks like the vaccines are indeed having the desired effect.

Much of the rise in cases reflects infections amongst younger people who are least likely to be protected by vaccination at this time.  These infections are not translating into more serious cases because younger adults are less likely to become seriously ill with COVID.  Also, people who have received a vaccine who get infected are much less likely to get seriously ill.

There is cause for some caution here, however.  Rising numbers of infections increases the probability of new strains emerging; something scientists are keen to avoid. 

But, as vaccination continues to roll out over the summer, we should see an even more significant depressive effect on infection rates as well as on the numbers experiencing serious illness and death.

Whilst we may not be there yet, but the figures clearly show that there is indeed some light at the end of the tunnel!

Source:  UK Government Coronavirus data

About Synchronix

Synchronix is a full-service market research agency.  We believe in using market research to help our clients understand how best to prepare for the future. 

In this particular blog piece we’ve aimed to show what the numbers are telling us about current COVID trends in the UK.  However, we also hope we’ve been able to show why and how using an Index can help us visualise trends in a manner that is more accessible and meaningful that simply using raw data alone.

You can read more about us on our website.  

If you wish to follow our weekly blog you can view all out past articles on our website here.

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