Why are media outlets reporting the Covid epidemic is escalating?

5 November 2021
What was claimed

As of 2 November, case numbers are spiking.

Our verdict

At this point, new infections in the UK were falling. The total number of people with Covid-19, as opposed to newly diagnosed people, may have still been increasing.

What was claimed

As of 3 November, the UK’s coronavirus epidemic was escalating by the day.

Our verdict

At this point, new infections were falling, but the total number of people with Covid-19 may still have been increasing.

“Case numbers are spiking”

“With the UK's coronavirus epidemic escalating by the day, it's no longer a case of if Plan B will be triggered but when, say experts.”

“Why are schools not putting masks in place, with cases rising in school age children?”

In recent days various journalists and news outlets have made statements suggesting that Covid-19 levels in the UK are escalating. 

Christiane Amanpour of CNN said cases were “spiking”, Sky News said the epidemic was “escalating by the day” and on BBC Breakfast a presenter read out a question from a viewer claiming cases were rising in school age children.

GB News journalist Tom Harwood has questioned the statements, describing them as “mistruths” and “false narratives” and pointing out that in recent weeks new infections have been falling across England (which is also true across the UK more widely) and among children specifically.

So what was actually happening?

Daily infections, as Mr Harwood focussed on, are the best way to look at the trajectory of the epidemic, but it is possible that the media outlets cited were referring to other measures of its scale.

For example, when Christiane Amanpour said “case numbers are spiking” on 2 November, the total number of active cases (as opposed to new daily cases), as estimated by the ZOE Covid Symptom Study run by King’s College London, was at the highest recorded level in the UK, even though daily cases had been falling.

Total estimated cases ticked up slightly again on 3 November when Sky said the “epidemic is escalating by the day.”

The latest Office for National Statistics Infection Survey data available at the time also estimated the proportion of people in England with Covid-19 was increasing to a level last seen in early 2021, though this covered the period from 16 October to 22 October and so wasn’t particularly current when the tweets were published. 

The latest data, covering the week to 30 October, estimated the proportion of people in England with Covid-19 had stabilised. 

Around the time these claims were made, the total number of people in UK hospitals with Covid-19 was also increasing gradually, though that has started to come down in the past few days, driven by the reduction in new cases seen over the past few weeks.

So there is some justification for the outlets to report the scale of the epidemic was escalating.

However, the lack of specificity could have given the misleading impression that things were forecast to continue to worsen, when the daily case figures, including the rolling weekly average, pointed in the opposite direction. 

We asked CNN and Sky News what they meant by these tweets. 

A spokesperson for Sky News explained its tweet by saying that the most recent data from the ONS Infection Survey showed the number of people with Covid-19 was increasing, and data from the UK Health Security Agency showed estimates of the R rate in England were still above 1 and had increased on 29 October

However, they said that, on review, its tweet failed to give sufficient context about how the epidemic was escalating by the day, and Sky News has decided to delete the tweet to avoid further confusion.

We had not received a response from CNN at the time of publication. 

Data from the REACT-1 study

Shortly after these tweets were published, Imperial College London published the latest data from its REACT-1 study, measuring the prevalence of Covid-19 in England, 

This said the highest “overall prevalence of swab-positivity seen in the REACT-1 study in England to date” was observed over the latest study period from 15 to 29 October, compared to any other study period.

The news was reported by some outlets as saying that infections are (our emphasis) at the highest ever recorded level.

However, the study also noted that there was “evidence of a fall in prevalence from mid- to late-October 2021.”

Essentially, while prevalence appeared to have reached a peak during this period, Imperial’s findings suggested that prevalence was no longer at that level and was starting to fall.

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