Second Covid-19 wave could prove 'devastating' to elderly in rural locations, experts warn

Dan Sanderson
The study was published by academics at the University of St Andrews, pictured - Hulton Archive/Epics

Rural locations that have been left relatively unscathed by Covid-19 could be at risk of a "devastating" second wave of the virus as lockdown measures ease, experts have warned.

Academics from the University of St Andrews have said that while they believe as many as one in five people may have caught the virus in parts of the UK’s most populated cities, many remote locations and small towns, often with large elderly populations, have not seen significant outbreaks.

Their study warns that while an uneven spread of the virus means it is not too late to contain Covid-19 with new public health measures, a potential second wave later in the year could leave those in places which have so far escaped high death rates exposed.

Overall, the academics said their models had predicted that 3.4 million, or 5.2 per cent of the population, had caught the virus in the UK by the end of April. 

While far in excess of the 259,559 confirmed UK cases as of Sunday, the central estimate is far lower than other estimates, some of which have claimed as much as half of the UK population may already have been infected.

“There is always some uncertainty,” Hill Kulu, Professor of Human Geography and Demography at St Andrews, said. “But we think it is very unlikely that less than three per cent or more than 12 per cent  of the UK population has had the virus. 

“That is not good news for those who think we have achieved herd immunity already. On the other hand, it is good news for those who see the infection rates are not very high and hope we can still control and suppress this.”

The models designed by the St Andrews academics were based on known infection numbers and virus mortality rates, as well as other factors.

While they suggest the virus has spread widely in areas of London and other major cities such as Glasgow, Manchester and Birmingham, in parts of places such as Cornwall, North Wales, and the Scottish Borders and Highlands, there has been “relatively little spread”.

Professor Kulu said he believed it was right to ease lockdown restrictions, but that it was important that politicians were aware of the risk of the virus running rampant in more isolated parts of the country. Precautionary measures such as social distancing, he said, would have to be maintained until a vaccine or cure is found.

The paper warned that if the virus spreads “rapidly and widely” in the UK, potentially during a second wave, the impact “could be devastating to remote rural communities with an elderly population.”

Professor Kulu added: “There are more older people in rural areas, and their remote location has protected them, that is good news. There is no doubt we have to ease the lockdown and return to some kind of normality. 

“But it means social distancing, shielding the elderly population, will be as important in rural areas as elsewhere. I am not saying we should close rural areas, but we will need to continue following these measures. There is this danger and we have to be careful.”

The research found that even within cities, there was a wide disparity in infection rates. For example, in London, while some areas had been hard hit, in suburbs such as Bromley, Kingston upon Thames and Sutton “lower infection levels are observed”.

A small number clusters outside of major cities, such as the Lake District, had seen infection rates in excess of the UK average.

In line with other findings, the results suggest that people from lower income groups in urban areas, including those with minority backgrounds, were most affected by the spread of coronavirus in March and April.

Peter Dorey, of the School of Geography and Sustainable Development at St Andrew’s and the report’s co-author, said: “Our analysis showed that there are some areas in London where cumulative infection rate was between 15 and 20 per cent. In contrast, some remote and rural locations have not yet seen any infections.”