JOHN NAISH: Why the UK's deadliest threat is now complacency

JOHN NAISH: Why the UK’s deadliest coronavirus threat is now complacency – with the second wave threatened before the first has subsided

Are we already starting to suffer a second wave of Covid-19 before the first wave has even fully subsided? Leicester has seen a surge of more than 600 cases in just two weeks, and is confronted with the prospect of an extended lockdown.

Expert agencies such as Public Health England are attributing the upsurge to a variety of possible factors, ranging from the city’s high proportion of susceptible people in BAME (Black Asian and Minority Ethnic) groups, to the possibility that residents may have rushed to mobile testing services, causing a statistical blip.

However, Leicester is only the most prominent case of resurgent coronavirus in the UK and worldwide. Across England, local authorities responsible for 36 city and county areas are reporting renewed flare-ups.

Meanwhile, Berlin, Lisbon, northern Spain, as well as South Korea and Beijing, have all seen infections bounce back after anti-contagion restrictions were relaxed. 

A woman wearing a face mask walks past social distance advisory signs in Leicester’s North Evington neighbourhood today

Matt Hancock announced non-essential shops will shut from tomorrow and schools will close from Thursday in Leicester

(American figures are, of course, spiralling too. But experts say that this is down to the first wave of the pandemic continuing to roll across the US rather than secondary spikes in areas which have already been hit.)

The fear is that viral pandemic comebacks can be utterly catastrophic – and, historically, second waves have often proved far deadlier than the first. Russian flu, which swept the world at the end of the 19th century, killed around 27,000 people in Britain in the first wave.

The second, a year later, claimed 80,000 souls.

Spanish flu’s second wave in 1918 was also far deadlier – by a margin of hundreds of millions. This was not least because the flu virus evolved quickly to become much more lethal.

With Covid-19, mercifully, the opposite could be happening. UK data on patient outcomes indicates that the virus might steadily be becoming less lethal.

However, this fall in death rates may be due to other factors, such as improvements in hospital care, and the fact that many of society’s most vulnerable succumbed early in the pandemic.

What is clear, however, from the resurgent figures, is that the virus is no less contagious than before.

So long as second-wave outbreaks occur within communities that stay at least partially locked down and generally practise social distancing, new infections should remain localised.

Are we already starting to suffer a second wave of Covid-19 before the first wave has even fully subsided, writes Josh Naish

But, if not, infections will run like wildfire, as they did in the first wave.

Unlike the first wave (which thanks to Chinese secrecy struck us all-too unprepared), the odds of a second pandemic occurring will be determined entirely by our behaviour. We have learnt much in a very short time. We now understand the R factor, and we have demonstrated that we can indeed bring it down.

We have also learnt that we can beat Covid-19 outbreaks with patience and self-sacrifice.

We are learning where new hot spots are likely to arise – meat-processing plants are a clear example, where cold, damp, crowded environments allow the virus to flourish – and thus where we should take most vigilant care.

But if we are to prevent a second wave, we must also defeat another newly emerging foe. That foe is base human instinct. Studies show that our grey matter is oddly wired when it comes to persistent threats.

Soldiers from the Royal Logistics Corp operate a mobile coronavirus testing site at Evington Leisure Centre in Leicester today, with one pictured carrying a box for drivers to put their Covid-19 swabs in

Our central neurological system for responding to stress (called the HPA axis), downgrades our level of fear each time we meet the same threat.

It’s handy for parachutists. Studies show that with each parachute jump, they are less fearful. But here on the ground, familiarity often breeds contempt.

It is the contempt that pervades the street-party crowds, the football mobs and the masses queuing outside Primark to buy beachwear to flaunt at packed seaside resorts.

This contempt for the safety of others will only propel the virus again through vulnerable populations.

It is behaviour that’s the polar opposite of the patient, self-sacrificing resilience required to prevent Covid-19 returning.

And denying the threat’s existence will only make it more likely to happen.

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