Britain has turned a corner in the coronavirus pandemic in a “bad sense”, which means infections will rise at a dangerous pace unless tougher action is taken, the UK’s top medical advisor said on Monday.
Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Chris Whitty joined the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Patrick Vallance, at a Downing Street briefing to present a host of charts and data to warn that the rate at which coronavirus is spreading across the country could see 50,000 new cases a day by mid-October without further restrictions.
Their warnings indicate that tighter lockdown measures on household interactions and hospitality businesses are imminent.
“We have, in a bad sense, literally turned a corner, although only relatively recently,” said Whitty.
“If this continued, the number of deaths directly from COVID will continue to rise, potentially on an exponential curve, that means doubling and doubling and doubling again. And you can quickly move from really quite small numbers to really very large numbers because of that exponential process,” he warned.
Both senior scientific experts, addressing their first briefing without being accompanied by either Prime Minister Boris Johnson or a senior Cabinet minister, were brought in to issue a stark warning that the UK was headed in the “wrong direction” and lay the groundwork for further UK-wide curbs expected to be announced by the government later in the week.
On Sunday, a further 3,899 daily cases took the overall coronavirus cases to 394,257. A further 18 people died within 28 days of testing positive for COVID-19, bringing the UK death toll from the virus to 41,777.
Based on projections if the current trend of roughly doubling infections every seven days is left unchecked, Whitty and Vallance warned that the middle of November could see up to 200-plus deaths per day.
“The challenge therefore is to make sure the doubling time does not stay at seven days,” said Vallance.
The government advisers also said that even though different parts of the UK were seeing cases rising at different rates, and even though some age groups are affected more than others, the evolving situation “is all of our problem”.
“What we’ve seen in other countries, and are now clearly seeing here, is that they’re not staying just in the younger age groups, and moving up the age bands and the mortality rates will be similar to – slightly lower than they were previously – but they will be similar to what we saw previously,” said Whitty.
Their message comes as UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock warned over the weekend that Britain was at a “tipping point” where “more restrictive measures” may have to be brought in to slow the accelerating spread of COVID-19.
Last week, Johnson had raised fears of a second wave of the pandemic beginning its sweep across the UK. The Opposition parties have accused the government of failing to put adequate testing measures in place. Labour’s shadow health secretary, Jonathan Ashworth, said in response to the senior government advisers’ briefing that it painted a “grim picture” for the country.
“The government must do what it takes to prevent another lockdown, which would cause unimaginable damage to our economy and people’s wellbeing. We need an effective testing and tracing system with support for people to isolate. When testing breaks down we can’t track this virus and it quickly gets out of control,” he said.
Labour Party Leader Sir Keir Starmer, who is currently hosting his party’s annual conference in a virtual setting, noted over the weekend: “If I was the Prime Minister, I would apologise for the fact that testing is all over the place and instead of using the summer to prepare for the autumn, which is what we said should happen, we’re in this position just when we need testing to be at its very best, it’s near collapse.”
At present, most parts of northern England are already under stricter localised lockdown, with other regions coming under a similar ambit from Tuesday.
A more nation-wide option being considered by the government is a short two-week lockdown that would see additional rules around household interactions and restrictions on the hospitality and leisure sectors, but not involve school closures.
Described as a “circuit break”, the aim would be to impose tighter restrictions across England to curb the chain of transmission before it accelerates further.
Meanwhile, the government is facing an additional hurdle in the form of resistance from some senior MPs from the ruling Conservative Party, who are threatening to rebel against further restrictions if they are not subject to greater parliamentary scrutiny.