Experts said fatalities may be declining due to better treatment and the fact that younger people – who are less likely to die – are accounting for many of the new cases. But they warned that the virus remains as deadly as ever, with no evidence it is mutating to become less dangerous. Keeping a close eye on the figures over the coming weeks will be crucial to easing the lockdown as there is about a three week time lag before a rise in infections translates into deaths.
Data released yesterday by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that weekly coronavirus deaths fell by more than a quarter in the week to July 24.
Just 217 were registered – down 26 percent on the previous week when 295 death certificates mentioned the virus.
Total deaths in England and Wales remained lower than the five-year average for the sixth week in a row.
Prof Paul Hunter of the University of East Anglia said: “We are certainly seeing an increased number of tests but we’re not seeing increased numbers of particularly ill people, and certainly not people dying at the moment.
“But it’s too early to be overly confident that we’re not going to see an increase in deaths. We almost certainly will as we move into the autumn.” The update came as NHS England announced a further six people who tested positive for coronavirus had died in hospital.
A further 670 cases were confirmed across the UK, taking the total to 306,293.
Last week, the ONS suggested the number of people catching coronavirus had increased, with about 4,200 new cases per day between July 20 and 26 – up from an estimated 2,800 new cases a day in the previous week. This prompted Prime Minister Boris Johnson to announce he was “squeezing the brake pedal” on lockdown, with the planned lifting of some restrictions put on hold for a fortnight.
Scientists said that if there is a significant increase in cases it is hoped the proportion of infected people who die could be smaller than during the first peak.
Keith Neal, emeritus professor of the epidemiology of infectious diseases at the University of Nottingham, said a better understanding of how to fight the virus should see more patients survive.
He said: “Age-specific death rates have fallen because of better treatments.
“People have got better at treating the disease as they have seen more. The real game changer has been dexamethasone, with a one-third mortality reduction [in ventilated patients].
“Had we had that treatment at the start we would probably have about a quarter less deaths.”
Prof Hunter said: “You see this in pretty much every epidemic – that early cases are more likely to die than later cases, partly because doctors have got more experience.
“Dexamethasone has been shown to be incredibly valuable in reducing deaths, which we have only really known for certain for the last few weeks.”
Experts believe younger people may be behind the recent uptick in infections as they are less likely to stick to social distancing rules and may have returned to work where they are mingling with colleagues.
Dr Louise Dyson of the University of Warwick, said: “What might be a plausible scenario would be that cases increase first in the younger age group and then they pass it on to the older age group, so we may still see an effect of that.”