COVID-19 in Europe: Flattening Out

One month ago today, Italy became the first country in Europe to order a lockdown. Now, with much of Europe ordered to stay home, there are signs that the peak has been making its way across the continent.

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While the day-on-day numbers have been jumping around over the last few days, the seven-day moving average has been staying relatively constant, at around 37,000 new cases a day. This comes as we see countries with an earlier outbreak starting to come down, while countries with a later outbreak still rising.

The pan-European death toll has nearly flattened, with nearly 4,000 people dying with the virus in the average day over the last week. It is looking unlikely that this will have much further to rise, but given the long plateau we’ve been seeing so far in the number of new infections, it is likely that we will see the death toll plateau around this 4,000 a day level for some time.

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Italy, the original epicentre of the outbreak in Europe, locked down the entire country exactly one month ago. Since then, it’s clear that Italy has passed the peak of its epidemic; the trendline of new cases has been on the decline for the last two weeks, and the death toll has been on the decline for the past week.

One of the unanswered questions last week was how quickly the decline from the peak would be, and whether such a decline would accelerate. It looks like the decline has been relatively constant over the last two weeks, with the number of new cases declining by around 16% per week. This implies that it would take around four weeks for the number of new cases to reduce by half.

Around 2,200 new cases a day were reported on the three days on either side of when Italy’s lockdown was introduced. If the rate of decline continues on this level, it will return there around the time the current lockdown is scheduled to expire on 3 May.

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The situation in Spain has taken a rather dramatic turn over the last week, with the number of cases and the number of deaths slowing down at a quicker rate than in Italy. The average number of daily cases in Spain is down 27% from where it was a week ago.

On the way up Spain’s curve, we saw a rapid rise in cases before a rather quick flattening. There are signs in Spain that the decline in new cases is starting to accelerate, unlike in Italy where the decline is more constant. At the current rate of decline, the number of new cases will halve roughly every two weeks.

In the three days on either side of Spain’s lockdown being enacted on 14 March, there were an average of around 1,400 new cases a day. At the current rate of decline, that level will be reached around 7 May, but that could come sooner if the initial acceleration we’re seeing continues. The lockdown is currently scheduled to expire on 26 April, but it is expected to be extended by two weeks until 10 May.

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Austria became the first European country to announce a timetable for its lockdown to be lifted: small shops are expected to open on Tuesday, with larger shops opening on 1 May. Austria has been testing much more heavily than many other European countries, with four times as many people being tested per capita there as in the UK. And the number of new cases has fallen sharply over the past week, with just over half of the number of people getting infected now as was the case a week ago.

While the death rate in Austria is still rising, it’s hard to tell how much to read into that. Their testing strategy has meant that they have been able to catch a number of cases earlier, and so it is possible that the time gap between cases and deaths peaking will be longer.

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The rate of new cases continues to increase in the UK, but the rate of increase has been slowing down. The rate of new infections increased by around 50% over the last week, compared to a doubling the week before. The daily death toll has also been growing more slowly: over the last week, the number of daily deaths grew by 70%, compared to a four-fold increase the week before.

We saw this in Italy a couple of days before the number of new cases peaked, and so it’s likely that the peak in new cases will come in the UK early in the new week. But it’s clear that the lockdown in the UK, currently scheduled to be reviewed on Thursday, will be extended for another three weeks, and likely for longer.

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The reason I bring up Sweden is because they are one of the few European countries that didn’t introduce a lockdown, opting instead to ask people to simply stay apart. The average number of new infections has flattened over the last week, with just over 500 infections a day averaged over the last week. There is still an uptrend in the daily death toll in Sweden, but that is also slowing (doubling last week, trebling the week before). It suggests that it may be possible to keep the virus under some degree of control once the lockdown is lifted elsewhere in Europe, but of course that will rely on people continuing many of our current social distancing activities once the lockdown ends.

One of the big things that will help European leaders decide when to lift their lockdowns will be what happens in China over the next few weeks. As Wuhan, the birthplace of this virus, lifts many of the restrictions that have been in place since January, we’ll learn whether a second wave of the virus will emerge, and how severe it will be.

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I am Joe. I am a techy at heart, a self-taught psephologist (political number cruncher), a pleasure cyclist, and someone who just calls things as he sees them.

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