MPs have been warned that the coronavirus crisis is at a “critical” moment, as figures suggested the number of infections had doubled in a week.
Jonathan Van-Tam, the deputy chief medical officer, is understood to have warned that the situation in the UK was now similar to that in early March, before the national lockdown was introduced.
Sadiq Khan, the mayor of London, also predicted further restrictions in the city were inevitable as pubs and restaurants in coronavirus hotspots braced themselves for new restrictions.
Boris Johnson is expected to make a statement to MPs on Monday during which he will outline a three-tier local lockdown system designed to slow the spread of the coronavirus. And more details on the possibility of further restrictions emerged last night in a letter written to MPs by Mr Johnson’s chief strategic adviser, Sir Edward Lister.
In the letter, written following a meeting with northern leaders, Sir Edward stated that the “rising incidence” of coronavirus in parts of the country meant it was “very likely” that certain areas will face “further restrictions”.
The letter also said that the prime minister believed local leaders should “help shape the package of measures in the most concerning areas” and that the government will discuss “difficult choices” with them.
In preparation, the chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled a rescue package for businesses expected to be ordered to shut their doors.
Ministers will cover two-thirds of the wages of all staff in workplaces legally required to close, Mr Sunak announced, in what will be seen as an effective extension of his furlough scheme for some.
During a briefing with Matt Hancock and Mr Van-Tam, MPs are understood to have been warned the situation was “critical” and could be compared to early March, just weeks before Boris Johnson ordered an unprecedented nationwide lockdown.
The latest infection numbers from the Office for National Statistics revealed cases may be doubling with 224,400 people in England thought to have caught coronavirus between 25 September and 1 October, equating to about one in 240 people. A week earlier, the numbers infected were nearer 116,000.
According to the daily data from Public Health England and the NHS 13,864 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK were reported on Friday with 87 more people dying within 28 days of a positive test.
Almost 600 people were admitted to hospital in the last day, with a total of 3,660 now on wards and 436 on ventilators to help them breathe.
The latest analysis from the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies warned the growth in infections was between 4 and 9 per cent a day with the R rate of transmission at between 1.2 and 1.5.
In a statement, the committee said: “Sage is almost certain that the epidemic continues to grow exponentially across the country, and is confident that the transmission is not slowing.
“While the R value remains above 1.0, infections will continue to grow at an exponential rate. This is currently the case for every region of England and all have positive growth rates, reflecting increases in the number of new infections across the country.”
The worsening picture across the country was further underlined by the government’s mass testing project involving 175,000 volunteers.
It found between 18 September and 5 October that 1 in 170 people in England had the virus with as many as 45,000 new infections every day.
Infections are increasing across all age groups and regions in England, with the highest rates seen in young people aged between 18 and 24 years old.
Professor Paul Elliott, director of the React programme at Imperial College London, said: “Our robust findings paint a concerning picture of the growing epidemic across England.
“While certain areas are worse affected, if left unabated then infection trends will follow nationwide and could lead to high levels of unnecessary death and illness from the disease.”
Experts behind the React study said the rate of growth of the epidemic across England has slowed in the past month, but the country was now at a “critical point in the second wave”.
One of those who led the study, Professor Steven Riley from Imperial College London, warned: “Prevalence is going to continue to go up unless either compliance with the messaging improves, or additional measures are introduced that are supported by the general public.
“There is a very strong epidemiological case for trying to reduce the transmission right now.”
Ministers are expected to outline a three-tier local lockdown system on Monday, which could see hospitality venues in the worst affected areas being forced to temporarily close.
The chancellor said the expansion of his job support scheme would provide “reassurance and a safety net” for people and businesses across the UK in advance of a potentially “difficult winter”.
The support will see the government pay two-thirds of each employee’s salary – up to a maximum of £2,100 a month – if their employer is legally required to close their premises because of restrictions.
It will launch on 1 November and last for six months.
But mayors from the north of England said the new measures appeared not to go “far enough” to prevent “genuine hardship, job losses and business failure this winter”.