Around 250,000 people will die in Britain as a result of the coronavirus outbreak unless more draconian measures are adopted to protect the population, scientists have warned.
The Imperial College Covid-19 response team – which has been advising ministers – said that even with the “social distancing” plans set out by the Government, the health system will be “overwhelmed many times over”.
In its latest report, it said the only “viable strategy” was a Chinese-style policy of “suppression” involving the social distancing of the entire population.
It said such measures would need to be maintained potentially for 18 months or more until an effective vaccine became available.
The stark warning came after Boris Johnson on Monday unveiled unprecedented peacetime measures to try to control the spread of Covid-19.
They were announced as the death toll of people with coronavirus in the UK reached 55.
UPDATE on coronavirus (#COVID19) testing in the UK:
As of 9am on 16 March, a total of 44,105 have been tested:
42,562 negative.1,543 positive.
55 patients who tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19) have sadly died.
— Department of Health and Social Care (@DHSCgovuk) March 16, 2020
In the first of his daily No 10 press conferences, the Prime Minister called on people to stay away from pubs, clubs and theatres and to avoid all non-essential contacts and travel.
In other developments:
– Chancellor Rishi Sunak will set out a new package of support for businesses hit by the outbreak less than a week after announcing £12 billion of emergency funding in the Budget
– The Government will lay out emergency legislation expected to include powers for police to detain people to stop them spreading the virus and allowing hospitals to send patients home to free up beds
– All non-essential access to the Houses of Parliament has been stopped and MPs and peers over the age of 70 or with underlying health problems have been urged to heed Government advice
– The Prime Minister has held a conference call with manufacturing firms and organisations urging them to step up production of ventilators and other vital medical equipment
– The National Association of Funeral Directors is meeting the Cabinet Office on Tuesday to discuss how its members “can cope with extra number of deaths resulting from people being infected with Covid-19”.
Under the latest Government advice, anyone living in a household with somebody who has the symptoms of a persistent cough or fever was told to isolate themselves for 14 days.
New #coronavirus advice:
▶️ Where possible, we encourage people to work from home.
We strongly advise this for people aged 70 and over, pregnant women, or anyone with underlying health conditions. pic.twitter.com/4qLpRvLeZR
— Department of Health and Social Care (@DHSCgovuk) March 16, 2020
Special guidance will be issued by the NHS for the 1.4 million people most at risk from the disease – including the elderly with underlying health conditions – on further measures they need to take to “shield” themselves.
Mr Johnson said the measures were needed as the UK was approaching the “fast growth part of the upward curve” in the number of cases.
“Without drastic action, cases could double every five or six days,” he said.
However, the Imperial College report warned that even with such a dramatic closing down of normal life, the capacity of health systems in the UK and the US – which is adopting similar measures – was likely to be “exceeded many times over”.
“In the most effective mitigation strategy examined, which leads to a single, relatively short epidemic (case isolation, household quarantine and social distancing of the elderly), the surge limits for both general ward and ICU (intensive care unit) beds would be exceeded by at least eight-fold under the more optimistic scenario for critical care requirements that we examined,” it said.
“In addition, even if all patients were able to be treated, we predict there would still be in the order of 250,000 deaths in GB, and 1.1 to 1.2 million in the US.”
The report said there was no alternative but to move to a policy of total “suppression” involving the social distancing of the entire population, home isolation of cases and household quarantine of family members.
Even then, it said it was “not at all certain” that the strategy would succeed in the long term.
“The social and economic effects of the measures which are needed to achieve this policy goal will be profound,” it said.
“No public health intervention with such disruptive effects on society has been previously attempted for such a long duration of time. How populations and societies will respond remains unclear.”
In response, a Government spokesman said the recommendations put forward by its Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) were in line with “best current evidence”.
“This is a very fast-moving situation. In order to give the most robust scientific advice Sage draws upon and considers a range of evidence and views to reach its recommendations,” the spokesman said.
“Part of this evidence includes the latest modelling data from a number of experts. All Sage recommendations are in line with the best current evidence. We will be publishing further evidence shortly.”
The Imperial College report said it had only reached its conclusions in the last few days based on experience in Italy and the UK.
At his news conference Mr Johnson the said the latest Government measures represented a “very substantial change” in the way it was asking people to live their lives that was unprecedented in peacetime.
He said they represented “a very considerable psychological, behavioural change” but he said he had “absolutely no doubt” the country could do it.
The Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance insisted the measures would have a “big effect” on the spread of the virus.
“This is not a series of small interventions. You would anticipate that this could have a dramatic effect to reduce the peak and to reduce death rates,” he said.
Meanwhile, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have written in the Daily Mail that people should “listen to the science” and not “be suspicious or indulge in conspiracy theories”.
They wrote: “Through listening we already know how to reduce the risk: washing our hands meticulously; self-isolating even if we are not ill but may have come into contact with the virus; resisting the temptation to go to a doctor’s surgery where we might infect others; resisting the temptation, too, to panic buy.
“Above all we must look after one another, knowing that in an uncertain world with a new virus we are best protected with honesty, compassion and care.”