The Numbers Behind Lockdown and Vaccine Delivery

Peter Russell

January 05, 2021

Editor's note, 6 January 2021: This article was updated to include the latest vaccination data.

The sheer weight of numbers proved crucial to Prime Minister Boris Johnson's decision to address the nation last night and announce national lockdown number three for England.

Downing Street said the decision, which included a policy U-turn to shut all schools and cancel summer exams for teenagers, followed a rapid rise in infections, hospital admissions, and case rates across the country.

The new variant of SARS-CoV-2 was identified as a key reason for the volte-face. "Our scientists have confirmed that the new variant is between 50 and 70% more transmissible," Mr Johnson said in his sober assessment of the winter months and beyond.

Latest figures from January 4 showed there were 26,626 patients in hospital with COVID-19 in England, an increase of over 30% in one week, surpassing by 40% the hospital admissions peak in April last year.

The case rate in England up to 29 December was 478.5 per 100,000 of the population, three times higher than on December 1, 2020, when the case rate was 151.3.

There were 407 deaths within 28 days of a positive test for COVID-19 reported on January 4. It brought the total number of deaths between the beginning of March and the end of December to 74,326, latest figures from Public Health England showed.

"The number of deaths is up by 20% over the last week and will sadly rise further," the Prime Minister warned.

Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton, predicted that, "Within the next few weeks, the UK will pass the grim marker of 100,000 COVID-19 deaths", describing it as an "astonishing failure on the part of the UK Government".

Doubts Over Vaccine Rollout

Questions are being asked about how quickly the NHS will be able to deploy the two currently approved vaccines made by Pfizer/BioNTech and AstraZeneca/Oxford.

Mr Johnson said the target, "if things go well and with a fair wind in our sails", was to vaccinate everyone aged 70 and over, including frontline health and social workers, by the middle of February.

This morning it was the turn of Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office Minister to answer questions about the vaccine rollout timetable. He told BBC Breakfast that the ambition was to reach more than 13 million doses next month.

Asked whether it was possible to provide two million vaccines a week, he said: "We do want to make sure these vaccines are delivered in the safest possible way that we do not waste a drop."

Some experts are sceptical about the rate at which vaccines can be administered.

Dr David Strain, from the University of Exeter Medical School, told the Science Media Centre: "I have some reservations about his optimistic timeframe to have everyone in the top four priority groups, approximately 12 to 14 million adults, immunised within the next 6 weeks.

"Assuming all of these vaccines can be sourced, given the limitations in the fill and finish process (ie, the packaging process prior to delivery to the vaccination centres), there is still uncertainty as to how the logistics of these two million vaccines per week will be operated."

Prof Nilay Shah, head of the department of chemical engineering at Imperial College London, said: "Our analysis indicates that at steady-state it would be possible, with a great deal of coordination of manufacturing, logistics, rapid training of vaccination administration personnel, co-operation of patients, it should be possible to reach daily vaccination levels of 300,000 to 500,000 doses per day."

He said achieving 400,000 doses a day was "an ambitious target" that would need "focussed attention from everyone in the system".

A paper by the Adam Smith Institute think-tank recommended a 'war effort' to accelerate deployment of COVID-19 vaccines, with the armed forces, private sector, pharmacies, and volunteers brought in to help.

It called for the Government to set a target of six million vaccine doses each week.

Mr Johnson told a Downing Street briefing that more than 1.3 million people across the UK have been vaccinated so far, including more than 650,000 people over 80.


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