The UK has “turned a corner” for the worse and is on course for up to 50,000 new daily cases of Covid-19 by mid-October, which could lead to 200 deaths a day by the following month, the government’s chief scientific and medical advisers have warned.
The country should be prepared for significant restrictions for the next six months, over the winter period when the virus can be expected to flourish, Prof Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, said.
Boris Johnson will chair a Cobra meeting on Tuesday morning “to discuss what next steps may be required in the coronavirus response” and will speak to the first ministers of the devolved nations in separate calls on Monday.
Whitty said mortality rates from Covid-19 were “significantly greater” than seasonal flu, which killed about 7,000 annually, or up to 20,000 in a bad year.
“This virus is more virulent than flu, so the numbers people talk about are not unreasonable numbers for us to be thinking about,” he said, and while treatments were better they could not take mortality down to “trivial” levels.
Whitty, speaking at a media briefing alongside the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said: “If this continues along the path, the number of deaths directly from Covid could rise on an exponential curve, and you can move from small numbers to really very large numbers.
“We have in a bad sense, literally turned a corner, although only relatively recently. At this point, the seasons are against us, we are 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 flu.”
Whitty said the resurgence of the virus should be seen as “a six-month problem that we have to deal with collectively”. He said it would not be an indefinite problem and that “science will in due course ride to our rescue” – a hint at the progress of a vaccine.
“But for the next six months we have to realise that we have to take this collectively very seriously,” he said. Whitty said there was “no evidence” that the resurgence was a milder form of the virus.
Vallance said the epidemic was doubling “roughly every seven days” and government modelling showed that would mean about 50,000 cases a day by mid-October. That, in turn, would lead to 200 deaths a day by mid-November.
“There is a simple message: as the disease spreads, across age groups, we expect to see increase in hospitalisation ... which will lead to an increase in deaths,” he said.
Vallance said there had been an increase in positive cases across all age groups, which was not down to increased testing.
Citing the ONS study, he said it was now estimated that roughly 70,000 in the UK were infected with Covid and about 6,000 a day were becoming infected. He said being infected with Covid previously was “not an absolute protection” and the vast majority of the population was not immune. The antibody response faded over time, he said, pointing to some cases of reinfection.
Whitty said the government and individuals could help reduce the spread, by following the “hands, face, space” advice; by isolating when they had symptoms and by reducing unnecessary social contact between households, something he admitted came with “significant downsides”.
“If we don’t do enough, the virus will take off and that is the path we are clearly on,” he said. “If we do not change course, we are going to find ourselves in a very difficult problem.”
Vallance said good progress was being made on vaccination development and that several were in late-stage clinical tests. He said it was possible some vaccines could be available in small amounts for certain groups by the end of the year, and could be available more widely next year.
No questions were permitted after the statement from Whitty and Vallance but a statement from the prime minister is expected on Tuesday, laying out any further restrictions and enforcement for the coming months.
One option understood to be under discussion is urging office workers to stay at home, but curbs on restaurant opening hours and new limits on social mixing appear more likely.
On Saturday, cabinet ministers were briefed in a call by Whitty and Vallance and further deliberations are expected to take place on Monday with members of the cabinet.
“The cabinet received a detailed briefing from the government’s chief medical, scientific and economic advisers over the course of the weekend,” Johnson’s spokesman said.
“The PM will work with his colleagues to ensure that we respond in the most effective way to try to control the spread of the virus and to save lives.”
The health secretary, Matt Hancock, is giving a statement to the House of Commons on Monday afternoon, and hinted that restrictions were likely to be on social gatherings rather than on offices or public transport.
“The really sad thing about this virus is that it thrives on the things that make life worth living, socialising, when people get close to each other, that’s when it tends to pass on and so we have got to be careful about that,” he told ITV’s This Morning.
Asked whether people would be drinking in pubs in England this weekend, Hancock said: “It’s not a no, and it’s not a yes. We’ve been working on this all weekend, we haven’t taken the final decisions about what we want to do in response to the surge that we’ve seen in the last two weeks.”
The shadow health secretary, Jon Ashworth, said it was a “grim picture” and the rise was not inevitable but a consequence of the failures of the government’s testing system.
More than 13 million people in the north of England, the Midlands, Scotland and Wales are already facing some form of local lockdown, and the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has urged ministers to consider more restrictions for London.