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Coronavirus: Chris Whitty says England at ‘limits’ of lockdown

Coronavirus cases are rising in the UK because ministers pushed lockdown easing measures ‘to their limits’, England’s chief medical officer warned today.

Professor Chris Whitty poured cold water on Boris Johnson’s plan to get the UK back to normal by Christmas, warning that relaxing rules further would ‘absolutely, inevitably’ lead to a resurgence of the virus. 

The CMO said lockdown loosening measures had to be ‘stopped now’ and maybe even ‘pulled back a bit’ because they risk allowing another large-scale outbreak int the future.

Mr Johnson had planned to reopen casinos, bowling alleys and allow crowds at live sporting events by August 1. But that has been pushed back to August 15 ‘at the earliest’ amid an uptick in infections across the country. 

Standing alongside the Prime Minister at a Downing Street press conference this afternoon, Professor Whitty backed Mr Johnson’s decision to squeeze the brake on the plans.

He said: ‘This is a situation where if we go beyond a certain point, in terms of people getting together, linking up households, the rates of this virus will start to increase.

‘We have probably reached the limits of that and if people continue to increase the number of people they meet, increase the number of social interactions they have, then the virus rate will go up, absolutely, inevitably.

‘So this is really within our hands as a society for how we’re going to respond to this. We either say, “actually, we’ve probably taken this to the limit, we’ve got to stop now and we may have to pull back a bit to keep this under control” or we do not. 

‘If we do pull back then we should be able to hold the line, and if we do not pull back and we start having further interactions, then we can expect to see an increase in cases with all the consequences that go with that.’ 

Professor Whitty stood alongside the Prime Minister today at a Downing Street press conference where he announced he was ‘squeezing the brake pedal’ on easing lockdown.

Mr Johnson warned that Covid-19 cases have started to ‘creep up’ and as a result the Government has no choice but to delay planned further casings. 

The PM also revealed that the mandatory wearing of face coverings will be extended to include galleries, cinemas and places of worship.

The announcements came after the Government last night revealed it was reimposing partial lockdown measures on 4.5 million people living in Greater Manchester and parts of Lancashire and Yorkshire.

The new rules mean that people are banned from mixing with any other households indoors or in a garden as the Government tries to slow the spread of the deadly disease following a spike in cases.

The decision to launch the crackdown at midnight prompted community leaders to accuse the Government of ‘an appalling abuse of power’ because it came at the start of Eid.

Me Johnson said: ‘With those numbers creeping up, our assessment is that we should now squeeze that brake pedal in order to keep the virus under control.

‘On Saturday August 1 we had hoped to reopen in England a number of the higher risk settings that remained closed. Today I am afraid we are postponing those changes for at least a fortnight.

‘That means until August 15 at the earliest casinos, bowling alleys, skating rinks and the remaining close contact services must remain closed, indoor performances will not resume, pilots of larger crowds in sports venues and conference centres will not take place and wedding receptions of up to 30 people will not be permitted but ceremonies of course can continue to take place in line with Covid secure guidelines’.

He added: ‘I know that he steps we are taking will be a real blow to many people, to everyone whose wedding plans have been disrupted or cannot now celebrate Eid in the way that they would wish and I am really, really sorry about that but we simply cannot take the risk.’

Mr Johnson said the the new rules on face coverings will apply from August 8, with the police being tasked with increasing enforcement in order to ensure members of the public comply.

He said: ‘We will also extend the requirement to wear a face covering to other indoor settings where you are likely to come into contact with people you do not normally meet such as museums, galleries, cinemas and places of worship.

‘We now recommend face coverings are worn in these settings and this will become enforceable in law from August 8.’ 

The announcement came as it was revealed Covid-19 cases have risen to a seven-week high in England and the R rate could now be above the dreaded level of one in both the North West and South West amid growing fears of a second wave.

Government statisticians today admitted there is ‘now enough evidence’ to prove Covid-19 infections are on the up, estimating that 4,200 people are now catching the virus each day in England alone.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS), which tracks the size of the outbreak by swabbing thousands of people, said the number of new daily cases was just 1,700 a fortnight ago.

One in 1,500 people currently have the coronavirus – 0.07 per cent of the population. The figure does not include care homes and hospitals.

Boris Johnson today said they ‘can’t ignore this evidence’ as he announced he was ‘squeezing the brake pedal’ on easing the coronavirus lockdown. 

Number 10’s scientific advisers today also upped the R rate in the UK, saying they now believe it stands between 0.8 and 0.9. It had been as low as 0.7 since May.

SAGE also revealed the growth rate – the average number of people each Covid-19 patient infects – may have jumped to above one in the South West, home to the stay-cation hotspots of Devon, Cornwall and Dorset.

The government is tracking the ‘R number’ – how many people someone with Covid-19 is likely to spread the virus to – across the country to see the impact of easing lockdown restrictions.

If the R rate is below 1, the spread slowly decreases. But above 1, there is the potential for cases to spiral out of control – as was seen in March. Anything above one could lead to restrictions being reimposed. 

SAGE does not have confidence that R is currently below 1 in England. 

It comes as separate data released today revealed the coronavirus outbreak in England is growing, with an additional 1,400 people are catching the disease every day compared to last week.

The data, from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) is considered to be some of the most accurate available. It estimates how many people have the coronavirus infection in the community, and not hospitals and care homes.

The figures are far higher than those reported by the Department of Health every day, as this data only reports Covid-19 cases confirmed with a lab-read test.

ONS collect data from swab tests sent regularly to people’s homes to test whether they are infected with the virus at the time. The people are chosen to be representative of the UK population. 

The organisation follows trends over a six-week period. This week’s update was based on the results of 116,026 swab tests collected over six weeks. During these weeks, 59 individuals from 58 households tested positive.  

Only very small numbers of people test positive in any given period, which creates a wide range of possible estimates for the ONS to choose from about how many people in the community have the virus. 

During the most recent week (July 20 to July 26), ONS estimates that around 4,200 people became newly infected with Covid-19 per day. It could be as low as 2,200 or as high as 8,100 based on their calculations.  

The possible range in this week’s estimate is between 23,700 to 53,200 – up from the 18,500 to 39,900 reported last week, and the 15,000 and 34,000 a fortnight ago. This does not include patients in hospitals or care home residents, who cannot be tested at home.  

‘There is now evidence to suggest a slight increase in the number of people in England testing positive on a nose and throat swab in recent weeks,’ the report today said.

It follows a low point of cases in June, when 0.06 per cent of the population were infected in the week ending June 18, a drastic drop from the 0.25 per cent measured in mid-May.

The statement came after several weeks of saying the evidence was not strong enough to confirm the outbreak was growing.  

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