Much of Italy is currently in lockdown as the country’s tally of coronavirus deaths has topped 1,000.

The outbreak is putting the Italian healthcare service under immense strain. But will the UK follow this path?

On Thursday, Boris Johnson’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said the UK was four weeks behind Italy “in terms of the scale of the outbreak” if not “in terms of the response”.

Does that mean we’re four weeks away from a similar fate?

Not necessarily. Here are three reasons why experts believe the UK’s epidemic could be different from Italy’s, and why the number of cases here means something different.

1. Different early transmission

Chart showing how many cases of coronavirus Italy has compared to the UK. The UK figure is below 1000 while Italy's is above 10,000

The number of confirmed cases is not the same as the number of actual cases. It depends on how many infected people are detected.

The epidemics in both countries may be growing at a similar rate now, but early on the UK had more diagnosed cases than Italy. Italian numbers shot up on 23 February, leading scientists to think there was a period when the virus was spreading without being detected.

That gave less room for measures like tracing contacts of those who had fallen ill and isolating cases to slow the spread.

Professor of international public health Jimmy Whitworth says that put the health system “behind the curve” in controlling the epidemic.

Researchers also warn that the Italy virus testing system has become overwhelmed and is not keeping up with new cases. This means Italy’s figures could be falling further behind the total number of actual cases.

And as the UK adds more testing capacity, Prof Whitworth adds, we might see a “jump in numbers” – not just a result of greater transmission, but better detection.

2. Italy’s epidemic is more concentrated

Maps showing intensity of cases by place, across Italy on 27 Feb, 5 March and 12 March

The pressure on health services also depends on where, and how severe, each case is.

There are good reasons to believe that these factors are different for the two countries. Since the initial spread, most of Italy’s epidemic has been concentrated in the northern region of Lombardy, home to just over 15% of Italians.

Lombardy has accounted for almost 60 in every 100 cases in Italy. By contrast, the epidemic, so far, is more spread out in the UK. Like Lombardy, London has about 15% of citizens. But it has a smaller proportion of cases: just under 25 in 100.

So 15,000 cases spread out across the UK might not put the same pressure on hospitals as they would if they were mainly in one city or region.

The UK government is still planning for a time when the NHS will face significant challenges. But that may not be when we catch up with Italy’s current number of confirmed cases.

Map showing intensity of cases across the UK as of 12 March

Source: BBC News

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