The UK could be facing 50,000 new Covid-19 cases a day by mid-October, leading to 200 deaths a day a month later if the current rate of infection is not halted, the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has warned.
Sir Patrick said the “vast majority of the population remain susceptible” to catching coronavirus and the current situation required swift action to bring the case numbers down.
In a televised press conference together with England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, Sir Patrick said there was “no doubt” the UK was in a situation where the numbers were increasing among all age groups.
He said it was not a prediction, but the current doubling of cases every seven days could lead to a much higher numbers of cases and deaths.
In mid-September, around 3,000 new cases were recorded every day in the UK, he said.
“If – and that’s quite a big if – but if that continues unabated and this grows, doubling every seven days, then what you see, of course, let’s say there were 5,000 today, it would be 10,000 next week, 20,000 the week after, 40,000 the week after, and you can see that by mid-October, if that continued, you would end up with something like 50,000 cases in the middle of October, per day.”
He said the “50,000 cases per day would be expected to lead a month later, so the middle of November, say, to 200-plus deaths per day.
“The challenge therefore is to make sure the doubling time does not stay at seven days.”
Sir Patrick said it was not the case that a rise in coronavirus in the UK was down to more testing being carried out.
“Could that increase be due to increased testing? The answer is no. We see an increase in positivity of the tests done – so we see the proportion of people testing positive has increased, even if testing stays flat.”
The scientist said less than 8% of the population had been infected, adding that antibodies faded over time, with cases of people becoming reinfected.
Prof Whitty hinted at curbs to social lives being needed to prevent coronavirus spiralling out of control, saying there was a need to “break unnecessary links” between households and a need to “change course”.
He said there were four things to do – washing hands and 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.
“And this means reducing social contacts whether they are at work, and this is where we have enormous gratitude to all the businesses for example who have worked so hard to make their environments Covid-secure to reduce the risk, and also in social environments.
“We all know we cannot do this without some significant downsides.
“This is a balance of risk between if we don’t do enough the virus will take off – and at the moment that is the path we’re clearly on – and if we do not change course we are going to find ourselves in a very difficult problem.”
Prof Whitty warned the country should be braced for a tough winter.
He said: “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”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is expected to hold a press conference on Tuesday, spent the weekend with senior ministers and advisers discussing what action to take as the rise in the number of new cases showed no sign of slowing.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Monday he wanted Christmas to be “as normal as possible”, telling ITV’s This Morning: “It depends how much we can control it now.
“If this runs out of control now, then we’ll have to take heavier measures in the future.
“The more we can control it now by everybody doing that bit, including us – absolutely – but everybody together, then the easier it is going to be to have as normal a Christmas as possible.”
On the possibility of a vaccine, Mr Hancock said: “For the mass rollout we’re talking about the first bit of next year, if all goes well.
“Hopefully in the first few months – there’s still a chance of it coming on stream before Christmas, but we’ve then got to roll it out and the first people who will get it are the people who are most vulnerable – people in care homes, older people.”
Mr Hancock was unable to say whether England’s pubs would be allowed to open this weekend and said his answer was “not a no, and it’s not a yes”.
He said final decisions were still being made, but added: “I think the main thing in terms of what we learnt is that where people catch the disease tends to be in social settings, people coming around to your house, or you going out and socialising essentially.
“We’ve seen relatively few cases caught through schools and relatively few through people at work.”
He said the Government was “determined” to keep schools open, adding: “The evidence is that schools aren’t where a lot of transmission happens, it’s more about people socialising.”
Asked by presenter Phillip Schofield if people would be “locked down in our own homes socially”, Mr Hancock said: “Well there are already parts of the country where, sadly, there are measures in place to say you shouldn’t socialise with people in your household.”
Mr Hancock dismissed as “completely overblown” reports of rifts within Government between himself and Chancellor Rishi Sunak over the response to coronavirus and whether health risks or the economy should be prioritised.