July 3, 2020 - 12:20pm

Sections of the media seem unable to report on any Covid-19-related news without finding within it a sure sign of impending disaster. I suppose it’s a conception of ‘responsible reporting’ (don’t tell people anything that might make them cavalier about the threat), or perhaps it’s just that bad news sells, but it is starting to feel like a parallel universe.

Take the curious phenomenon of the average age of new Covid-19 infections coming down, dramatically, across the world. This is really not bad news: obviously it would be better if no-one was getting infected, but if people are getting infected it is surely better to have younger people infected than older people, for the simple reason that they are far, far less likely to die of it. We should want the average age of new infections to be as low as possible.

You wouldn’t guess it from the coverage.

As virus surges, young people account for ‘disturbing’ number of cases,” screamed The New York Times last week, revealing that more than half of new cases in Arizona and parts of Texas are under 44, and that the median age of new cases in Florida has plummeted from 65 in March to 35 more recently. “The dropping age of the infected is becoming one of the most pressing problems for local officials” reported Bloomberg, ominously. Not as ‘pressing’ as it would be if the average age of the infected was increasing, presumably — because then there’d be many more people getting sick and dying.

States like Florida and Arizona are seeing a genuine surge, so it is understandable that people are concerned, and it is translating into an uptick in hospitalisations and deaths. But the fact that most of these cases are among younger people is a mercy, as it should mean that these infections will translate to fewer hospitalisations and deaths than the equivalent number of cases among older people.

New admissions to ICU with Covid-19 in Sweden. Credit: SVT

Sweden suffers a continual drumbeat of horror stories and horror charts showing surges in case numbers, but the state epidemiologist Anders Tegnell insists that it’s entirely a function of increased testing. Once again, the age profile of these new cases is younger and younger. Every day I check the chart for new admissions into intensive care in Sweden, awaiting the real-world effects of all these new cases, but every day the trend line continues downwards. As of today there are 127 people in ICU with Covid-19 in Sweden, a country of 10 million people.

Closer to home, hidden in the very detailed report by Public Health England into the Leicester outbreak that has led to an extended lockdown in that city, is the same detail:

The majority of cases confirmed in the recent 14 days are aged 18 to 65 years. The number of cases in those aged 65 years and over has been stable whereas cases reported in those under 18 years of age have been slowly increasing in the last 4 weeks.
- Public Health England

As with elsewhere, this is partly increased testing identifying a greater number of hidden cases (the report’s authors acknowledge that they can’t be sure there’s been any surge at all), but it could also be to do with protests, relaxing lockdown rules, or many other things. Whatever the reason, it should mean that the frightening surge of case numbers in Leicester, as in Florida and Arizona, won’t translate to a commensurate surge in hospitalisations and deaths. I’d put that on the ‘positive news’ ledger —but it is not reported that way.

Infections in Leicester

Epidemic curve of daily confirmed COVID-19 cases in Leicester. Credit: PHE

The counter-argument, of course, is that increasing numbers of young people getting sick will translate into increasing numbers of old people getting sick in time, as they go to see their grandparents etc. Well, let’s see. The Leicester ‘surge’ has already happened and it has not been observed elsewhere to the same degree. So we have something like a controlled experiment.

So far, there is no clear effect on Leicester hospitals, which report that they are not under pressure and are not seeing an increase in deaths. We need to keep an eye on the size of the effect for the next few weeks — if there is only a very small effect, please don’t let anyone get away with saying it is a ‘success of the local lockdown.’ We’ve seen the charts: the surge already happened prior to any new action. The data coming out of Leicester in the next few weeks should tell us a lot about the real-world effects of these apparent case surges of mainly young people, and how worried about them we should really be.

Freddie Sayers is the Editor-in-Chief & CEO of UnHerd. He was previously Editor-in-Chief of YouGov, and founder of PoliticsHome.