Scientists say a second wave of coronavirus over winter could be 'worse than first' with 120,000 UK deaths

A second wave of coronavirus over the winter period could result in 120,000 deaths in the UK, according to top scientists advising the government.

A report, commissioned by chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, warns that a second wave could be more devastating than the initial wave which sent the UK into lockdown in March. The report warns that mitigation measures must be taken in order to offset the risk of a deadlier second wave. 

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Compiled by 37 scientists and academics, the research says that hospitals could potentially see 120,000 Covid-19 deaths between September 2020 and June 2021, coinciding with higher demand due to usual winter pressures, including flu.

The report acknowledges that there is a high degree of uncertainty about how the Covid-19 epidemic will evolve in the UK over the coming months, but sets out a "reasonable worst-case scenario" that would see the R rate rise to 1.7 from September.

The worst-case scenario doesn’t take into account the potentially positive effects of government intervention, or use of the drug dexamethasone in intensive care units, which has been shown to cut deaths.

Not a prediction, but a possibility

Scientists involved in the study urged calm, underlining that this is “not a prediction, but it is a possibility”.

Professor Stephen Holgate, a Medical Research Council clinical professor of immunopharmacology, who led the study, said, "The modelling suggests that deaths could be higher with a new wave of Covid-19 this winter, but the risk of this happening could be reduced if we take action immediately.

"With relatively low numbers of Covid-19 cases at the moment, this is a critical window of opportunity to help us prepare for the worst that winter can throw at us."

The report recommends flu vaccinations for the vulnerable and medical staff as one action to be taken before winter sets in.

Professor Holgate also warned that NHS Test and Trace must be "upscaled in the winter", as more people will need to be tested, since winter illnesses can often have similar symptoms to Covid-19.

Less serious scenarios

The report also presented other potential scenarios. 

According to the study, an R rate of 1.1 could lead to 1,300 hospital deaths between September and June, while an R of 1.5 could lead to 74,800 hospital deaths.

A government spokesman said, "The modelling in this report represents a worst-case scenario based on no government action, and makes clear this isn't a prediction.

"Thanks to the nation's collective efforts, the virus is being brought under control. However we remain vigilant and the Government will ensure the necessary resources are in place to avoid a second peak that would overwhelm our NHS.

"This includes extensive winter planning to protect the NHS and care sector, further expanding our large-scale testing capacity, contacting thousands through NHS Test and Trace, working intensively on new treatments, and delivering billions of items of PPE to protect our health and social care workers."