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COVID-19 Weekly Update: 20th – 26th April 2020

Welcome to the COVID-19 weekly update. Every Monday we summarise the key events that have happened in the previous week in this pandemic. We will give you a rundown of what’s going on in the UK and the major events globally.

This week’s key statistics

What has happened in the UK this week?

On Monday, PPE was still an issue with Chancellor Rishi Sunak beginning by assuring that the government is working to resolve the unexpected delays in the shipment of PPE from Turkey, but 140,000 gowns have been received from Myanmar.

There is hope that the NHS will not be overwhelmed, as it currently has capacity and 1 in 5 intensive care beds are free. The number of new cases seems to be flattening out and hospital admissions have stopped rising.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Tuesday that the government had over 8,000 offers of PPE and that they are investigating every one. The government has been criticised for not responding to some of those offers.

This comes as shipments of PPE are expected in the UK shortly amidst continued reports of shortages. A deal has been reached with a Chinese supplier to provide 25 million gowns over 6 months. 

A team from Oxford has been given £20 million to fund their clinical vaccine trials with the first trials on humans beginning on Thursday. We may have passed the peak of the virus in England, with analysis suggesting this is likely to have occurred on 8th April.

However, Prof Van Tam warns that whilst the number of people in hospital is clearly falling in London, it is just plateauing in the rest of the country and not yet falling.

Prof Chris Whitty said on Wednesday that UK deaths are flattening off, but based on other countries, we should not expect a sudden decline. The military is working to help ramp up testing across the country, which will involve mobile testing units.

On Thursday, Matt Hancock said testing capacity has increased to 51,000 tests a day – very short of the 100,000 target by the end of the month. From Thursday, employers of essential workers and their families will be able to get a coronavirus test via the government website for any of their staff who want one.

From Friday, essential workers who need a test will be able to book an appointment themselves directly. Testing capacity is increasing exponentially and is said to be on track to meeting the target, with the help of 48 mobile testing facilities.

18,000 people will be hired to help trace COVID-19 infections; they will be crucial when lockdown is eased. This week, large antibody studies will begin with 25,000 people taking part in the first steps, with plans to expand over the next 12 months. However, it is not yet known how much immunity people acquire from having had the virus.

Infrastructure is being put in place so that a contact tracing app can be rolled out on a large scale. The NHS app is currently being tested. The premise is that if you become unwell, you tell the NHS app which alerts other users who you have been in contact with.

On Friday the website set up for workers to apply for a coronavirus test had to be temporarily suspended hours after it opened due to demand being too high.

The response was described as very positive by the health secretary who said more capacity will be added as it becomes available. 16,000 tests were booked by Friday afternoon with more slots being added on Saturday.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps launched a transport support unit to help the pandemic efforts, including the distribution of packages to vulnerable people. He also announced an agreement with the French and Irish governments to guarantee supply chains.

Home Secretary Priti Patel said on Saturday that whilst crime overall is down, some criminals are seeking to exploit and capitalise on the pandemic. Supermarkets are increasing delivery slots from 2.1 to 2.6 million a week however, this will still not be enough to meet demand.

At the end of the week on Sunday, testing capacity was at 50,000 a day but 20,000 of those were going unused. Boris Johnson will return to work on Monday, 2 weeks after being discharged from intensive care.

What has happened globally this week?

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the director-general of the WHO, said this week that the virus will be with us for a long time. Whilst epidemics in Western Europe seem to be stable or declining, there are upward trends in Africa, Central and South America, and Eastern Europe. Some countries that were affected early are now seeing a resurgence in cases, notably Singapore.

Dr Tedros is facing calls to resign over the handling of the COVID-19 crisis but says that the WHO issued its warning when there were just 82 cases and no deaths. The WHO has also said this week that governments should not issue ‘immunity passports’ as a way of easing lockdowns.

There is currently no evidence that people develop antibodies after recovering from coronavirus and therefore it is unknown if they are protected against a second infection. There are worries that immunity passports could actually increase transmission.

The coronavirus pandemic is continuing to damage the EU economies, with a plan to inject billions of emergency aid into struggling EU economies announced this week. This comes as Italy, the worst affected country in Europe, asked the richer EU countries in the North to show more solidarity.

Many countries have announced they will be easing their lockdowns this week. Measures will still remain in place but countries including the UAE, Czech Republic, and South Africa will loosen restrictions in the next week.

The World Food Programme has warned that many African countries such as Ethiopia and South Sudan are at risk of famines this year due to the pandemic. In America, New York State is to let more than 5,000 pharmacies carry out testing for the virus, in an attempt to ramp up testing efforts.

The world death toll surpassed 200,000 on the weekend, just 16 days after hitting the 100,000 mark.

Things to look out for next week

This week there are still questions about deaths going unreported, especially in care homes. ONS data reports 826 deaths in care homes in the week up to 10th April, however, there were 5,000 deaths in care homes that week which is twice the normal number. This is leading to questions over COVID-19 causing many more deaths in care homes than is recorded.

The UK hit 20,000 deaths on Saturday, being the fifth country to do so. It is a tragic and significant milestone – Sir Patrick Vallance had said that keeping the death toll under that figure would be a good outcome. Daily deaths do seem to be falling but have not stopped yet. 

Although hospital deaths are going down, deaths in care homes are rising and not yet under control. 

Prof Chris Whitty has said, as have many others, that a highly effective vaccine or drug treatments are the only way out of this, but that neither is likely to arrive in the next calendar year.

He has also said that social-distancing measures could be needed for quite a long period of time. 

Talks are ongoing, with the mandatory review of the lockdown coming up on 7th May. Perhaps the return of the Prime Minister might result in some more details this week.

Another big question is about testing – the end of April is looming but the government only has the capacity to do half the 100,000 tests a day that it has promised. Will this huge target be reached?

3 hopeful pieces of news

All of the news on COVID-19 can seem very doom and gloom, but there are good things happening amongst all of the pandemic chaos. Here are 3 snippets of good news from the last week:

It was Earth Day this Wednesday with some good news coming out of this pandemic for the environment. There have been many reports of pollution levels dropping rapidly and locals in the Punjab region of India have been able to see the Himalayas for the first time in decades due to this reduced pollution.

The collaboration between Children In Need and Comic Relief aired on Thursday

The team at the University of Oxford began trialing their vaccine in humans this Thursday. They say this vaccination has an 80% chance of success.

Words by: Safiya Zaloum

Other COVID-19 articles to check out:

10 Ways to Look After Your Mental Health in Isolation

COVID-19 NHS Hot Topic – PPE

How to Use Your Time Effectively in Lockdown

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