Britain could be facing 50,000 new Covid-19 cases a day within weeks if the current rate of infection is not halted, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser has warned.
Sir Patrick Vallance told a televised briefing that the UK could see 200 deaths every day if fast action is not taken to curb the spread of the disease.
Speaking alongside Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty, Sir Patrick said the “vast majority of the population remain susceptible” to catching coronavirus, and that "speed" and "action" were now needed to tackle the crisis.
Professor Whitty told Monday's press conference that, over the next six months, Britons would have to take the pandemic "collectively, very seriously”.
Other key points from the press conference included:
- The number of people with antibodies is still low, meaning the “vast majority” of Brits are “susceptible” to Covid-19.
- Social curbs could be enforced, with Prof Whitty saying the UK should “break unnecessary links between households”, including at work.
- There is a possibility that "small amounts" of vaccine could be made available to certain groups of people by the end of the year.
- Mortality rates from the virus are “significantly greater” than seasonal flu, which kill around 7,000 annually or 20,000 in a bad year.
Sir Patrick explained that current data suggests the epidemic is "roughly doubling" in the UK every week.
“If that continues unabated and this grows doubling every seven days (...) you would end up with something like 50,000 cases in the middle of October per day," he said.
The scientific adviser added that if this rate were to roll on unabated, "by the middle of November", the country could see "200-plus deaths per day".
“The challenge therefore is to make sure the doubling time does not stay at seven days," he stressed.
“That requires speed, it requires action and it requires and it requires enough in order to be able to bring that down.”
He went onto explain that “in every age group we’ve seen an increase”, emphasising that this was not simply due to more tests being carried out.
Sir Patrick pointed to the results of a recent ONS study, which suggest around 70,000 people in the UK have Covid-19.
"As the disease spreads, as it spreads across age groups, we expect to see increasing hospitalisations and unfortunately, those increasing hospitalisations will lead to increasing deaths,” he said.
Sir Patrick cited examples from other countries in Europe – where rising cases are leading to a mounting daily death toll.
Looking at Spain and France he said fresh outbreaks "started with younger people in their 20s and spread gradually to older ages as well”.
He went on to warn that the number of Britons showing antibodies for the disease remains low, making the “vast majority” of people “susceptible” to Covid-19.
Antibodies were not an “absolute protection” either, he said, with the immunity to the illness fading over time.
He told the briefing that around eight per cent of the population – about three million – "may have been infected and have antibodies".
“It means the vast majority of us are not protected in any way and are susceptible to this disease,” he said.
He explained that antibodies in city populations was a “little higher” and that as many as 17 per cent of people in London could have them, making the spread slower in those areas.
Professor Chris Whitty then took over, telling the press briefing that all parts of the UK were seeing now “significant rates of transmission”.
The Chief Medical Officer said that "after the remarkable efforts which got the rates right down across the country", more localised outbreaks had begun to spring up – getting larger over time.
“And now what we’re seeing is a rate of increase across the great majority of the country," he said.
“It is going at different rates but it is now increasing.
He said that once-falling rates were now "beginning to rise" across all parts of Britain.
“So, this is not someone else’s problem," he said. "This is all of our problem.”
Prof Whitty hinted that further curbs on socialising were needed to prevent infection rates spiralling out of control.
“You cannot in an epidemic just take your own risk, unfortunately you’re taking a risk on behalf of everybody else. It’s important that we see this as something we have to do collectively,” he said.
He then set out four steps to reducing individual risk: washing hands; using masks; quarantine measures, and investing in vaccines and drugs.
“The third one, and in many ways the most difficult, is that we have to break unnecessary links between households because that is the way in which this virus is transmitted,” he said.
The medical chief insisted that this would need to involve reducing contact with others whether at work or in social settings.
Prof Whitty warned that the country should brace for a tough winter.
He told the briefing: “At this point the seasons are against us, we’re now going into the seasons – late autumn and winter – which benefit respiratory viruses, and it is very likely they will benefit Covid, as they do, for example, flu.
“So we should see this as a six-month problem that we have to deal with collectively, it’s not indefinite.”
Prof Whitty suggested that science would eventually “ride to our rescue” but “in this period of the next six months, I think we have to realise that we have to take this collectively, very seriously”.
There is “no evidence” that the virus was a milder strain than in April, he said.
Instead, he suggested the recent decrease in deaths was due to infections increasing among younger adults who are less likely to develop severe cases of Covid-19.
He also stressed that mortality rates from Covid-19 are “significantly greater” than seasonal flu, which kille around 7,000 annually or 20,000 in a bad year.
However, offering a glimmer of hope, Sir Patrick said that there is a possibility that small amounts of vaccine could be made available to certain groups of people by the end of the year.
He said there is “good progress being made” on developing a vaccine, adding: “Many vaccines now have shown they generate an immune response of a type that ought to be protective.
“We don’t yet know they will work but there is increasing evidence that is pointing in the right direction and it is possible that some vaccine could be available before the end of the year in small amounts for certain groups.
“Much more likely that we’ll see vaccines becoming available over the first half of next year, again not certain but pointed in the right direction, which then of course gives the possibility of a different approach to this virus.”