Sweden, UK not seeing a drop in coronavirus cases: EU agency

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A woman in a protective face mask walks through Brixton Market in South London, as the UK continues in lockdown to help curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Victoria Jones | PA Images via Getty Images

The European Union’s agency for disease control has said that the U.K. is among five countries in the region that are still not seeing a decline in new coronavirus cases. 

“Most EU/EEA (European Economic Area) countries have observed decreases in the daily number of newly reported cases in the last two weeks,” Sergio Brusin, principal expert for emergency response at the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (ECDC), told CNBC Tuesday.

However, while the number of Covid-19 cases had fallen in 26 European countries over the last two weeks, the number of cases was still increasing in one country, Bulgaria, and there had been “no substantial change” in the “14-day notification rate” observed in four countries: Poland, Romania, Sweden and the U.K.

The “14-day notification rate” is a proxy measure of the prevalence of active Covid-19 cases in the population. This is measured by taking the total number of cases over the 14 days prior to a specific date, in a specific country, and comparing it with 14-day time periods in the past, to assess how the number of cases has increased or decreased.

A cumulative number for a 14-day period gives a more “even” measure as numbers can vary a lot if you take the difference in numbers of cases between individual days, the ECDC — which has a team of epidemiologists screen up to 500 relevant sources to collect the latest coronavirus data in Europe daily — said. 

The 14-day cumulative notification rate has been decreasing in the majority of European nations that have already started to lift lockdowns. But attention is now on countries like the U.K., which is seen to be behind its European counterparts in terms of its stage in the outbreak, and Sweden, which did not impose a strict lockdown.

On Tuesday, the U.K.’s death toll overtook the number of fatalities seen in Italy and Spain — which had been, up until now, the epicenter of Europe’s outbreak and were both considered the worst-affected countries in Europe in terms of the number of confirmed cases and deaths, Italy having reported 29,079 deaths and Spain, 25,428.

It was confirmed by the U.K.’s Office for National Statistics Tuesday that the U.K. had seen more than 32,000 fatalities. Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed last Thursday that the U.K. had “past the peak” of its outbreak and he’s under increasing pressure to outline an exit strategy to lockdown — although the government is wary of a “second wave” of infections.

One of the other countries mentioned by the ECDC as not seeing any substantial downward trend in the number of new cases is Sweden, which went against the grain and did not impose a full lockdown but rather advised the public to work from home and limit contact with vulnerable groups, such as the elderly.

Sweden has attracted controversy for its strategy toward the virus, with critics saying that the elderly (a substantial amount of deaths are in care homes) have paid the price for keeping the economy going. The latest data shows Sweden has seen 23,216 confirmed cases of the virus, and 2,854 deaths.

Be ready

As economies in Europe begin to lift lockdown restrictions “a second wave of infections remains a possibility and countries should be prepared for this scenario, including considerations to re-impose restrictions if necessary,” agency expert Brusin said.

The ECDC suggested what it called a “layered approach” of “removing one measure at a time and observing carefully for several weeks to see the effects on incidence via good surveillance systems in the community and hospitals, before removing additional measures.”

While it is too soon to compare European countries’ often differing strategies and approaches to contain the outbreak, “the current situation enables a very unique and important opportunity to learn lessons around how countries should be better prepared to deal with any future pandemics,” the ECDC said.

“Systematic and comprehensive evaluations involving all key stakeholders will be necessary to review the impact of different responses. These lessons learned will feed into improving preparedness for the current pandemic and should also be used by countries to update/revise their general pandemic preparedness plans.”

The exchange of scientific knowledge and the latest available evidence should be part of future preparedness planning to better support decision-making processes, it said.

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