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The U.K. coronavirus outbreak is tracking a steeper trajectory than even the government’s worst-case scenario, papers released on Friday showed, adding to growing evidence tougher measures may be needed to reduce transmission.
September and October saw a deteriorating picture as caseload and hospital admissions first followed and then exceeded even the most pessimistic projections made by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, the panel which has guided Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decisions since the outbreak began in late Janaury.
“In England, we are breaching the number of infections and hospital admissions in the Reasonable Worst Case planning scenario” for the winter, the Oct. 14 conclusions of the panel’s sub-group that deals with modeling the pandemic said in one of the papers.
“The number of daily deaths is now in line with the levels in the Reasonable Worst Case and is almost certain to exceed this within the next two weeks.”
The documents are likely to heap further pressure on Johnson to take tougher measures, potentially including a national lockdown. The government said Friday it is sticking with a plan to crack down locally on coronavirus hot spots despite warnings from scientists the strategy isn’t working.
SAGE scientists in September had called for the premier to introduce a two- to three-week “circuit-breaker” lockdown coinciding with school holidays to rein in transmission. One document released on Friday showed they also modeled holding two circuit-breakers — Sept. 28 to Oct. 11 and then Nov. 1-15.
They concluded that “a two-week circuit breaker, in which strong social-distancing measures are in place, could significantly help to reduce the impact of the winter wave of COVID-19.”
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said Friday it would be “desperately unfair” to impose blanket measures when Covid-19 rates vary so much across England, adding that the government is “striving to avoid” a national lockdown. But he didn’t deny reports that it is considering adding a new tougher level of restrictions for the worst-hit areas of the country.
“We do think the situation is serious,” Raab told the BBC. “We’re confident we have got the right measures and framework in place, which is not to have a blanket approach but to target measures — both restrictions but also financial support — on the areas where the uptick is the highest.”
The Oct. 14 paper showed new daily infections in England were between 43,000 and 74,000 — far in excess of the 12,000-13,000 scientists had projected throughout October for their reasonable worst case.
The Oct. 8 conclusions of SAGE’s main panel projected the daily toll would be “well over” 100 new deaths in England per day within two weeks, which would also take that over worst case projections. Some 160 new deaths were logged two weeks later, on Oct. 22.
The U.K. reported 280 new deaths from coronavirus on Thursday, following two days when the total exceeded 300.
The number of people who currently have the virus is now above half a million in England, according to figures published on Friday by the Office for National Statistics, which said Covid infections are sharply increasing among secondary school children. The total rate of infections rose to one in 100 in the week through Oct. 23, from 1 in 130, it said.
In resisting a second national lockdown in England, Johnson is going against the strategy adopted by countries in Europe including France, and also Wales within the U.K., which last week adopted a “firebreak lockdown” until Nov. 9 to try to get the transmission rate down. The prime minister’s own scientific advisers have called for a similar measure for England.
“We’re at a very critical phase in the growth of the second wave of the pandemic,” Mark Walport, who sits on the SAGE panel, told Sky News on Friday. “If we want a lesson, we need to look across in Europe where France is about four weeks ahead of us in the progress of the epidemic. So this is a difficult time, and we know the only way to stop the spread of infection is to socially distance people from each other.”
Johnson has introduced a three-tier approach where regions with the highest infection rates face tougher social-distancing rules, including a ban on household mixing and closing pubs that don’t sell substantial meals. Officials are considering an extra tier that would force restaurants and non-essential shops to close, newspapers including the Guardian reported on Friday.
Nottinghamshire was the latest area to enter the highest tier on Friday, while West Yorkshire will move to the same alert level from Monday. That will take the total number of people in England under the toughest restrictions to just over 11 million, or 19.6% of the population, according to the Press Association.
There was some good news for the government on Friday: the so-called R rate, reflecting the number of people each positive coronavirus case infects, declined to an estimated 1.1 to 1.3 from 1.2 to 1.4 a week earlier. But any number above 1 still indicates the virus is spreading exponentially.
|Region||Latest R Number||Last Week|
|East of England||1.2-1.4||1.2-1.4|
|North East and Yorkshire||1.1-1.3||1.1-1.3|
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