The coronavirus reproduction rate could now be as high as one right across the UK after rising slightly in the last week, the Government’s scientific advisers warned today amid fears the virus is making a resurgence.
SAGE estimates the R value – the average number of people each Covid-19 patient infects – is now between 0.8 and 1.0, up from last week’s prediction that it was hovering around 0.8 and 0.9. Experts say the R needs to stay below one or Governments risk losing control of the epidemic and the virus could spiral back out of control.
England as a whole has remained the same at 0.8 to 1.0, but the R rose in Scotland (0.6 and 1.0), Wales (0.7 and 1.0), Northern Ireland (0.8 and 1.8), London (0.8 and 1.1), the North East and Yorkshire (0.8 and 1.0), and in the Midlands (0.8 and 1.0). The East of England is the only region in the entire UK where scientists can say with certainty that the R is below one.
SAGE said it was now ‘starting to see early indications that’ coronavirus was on the rise, which has fuelled fears that a second wave of the virus is making its way through the country. But it warned that when transmission is as low as it currently is in the UK – less than 1,000 people are being diagnosed every day – the R is more volatile. This means it can be skewed upwards by local clusters of infections, which has been seen in Aberdeen in Scotland and in swathes of the North West of England.
Despite the rise, separate Government data today suggested cases could actually be on their way down again after weeks of being on the up. The Office for National Statistics (ONS), which tracks the size of the outbreak by swabbing thousands of people, now believes there are 3,700 people in England getting infected with Covid-19 each day.
It is 12 per cent down on the 4,200 made in the government-run agency’s estimate last week, when they warned there was ‘enough evidence’ to prove cases were spiralling. The spike in cases prompted Boris Johnson to declare he was ‘squeezing the brake pedal’ on easing the coronavirus lockdown.
The ONS estimated 28,300 people in England had the coronavirus between July 27 and August 2 – the equivalent of one in 1,900 people. In comparison, last week’s rate was one in 1,500.
There has been some confusion about whether the virus is actually resurging, with prominent scientists warning that data was merely reflecting an increase in testing in areas that have been hit by flare-ups of the disease. Former Tory minister David Jones told MailOnline the Government was airing on the side of caution when it came to interpreting the figures.
He said there were bound to be questions about whether the latest phase of lockdown easing plans – which would’ve seen crowds back at sporting events, and casinos, bowling alleys and beauticians reopen – needed to be delayed.
Mr Jones said: ‘I guess the government is working on the basis it is better to be safe than sorry. When there is a public inquiry into all this it is going to be very clear that things could have been done differently and better. But of course there is not a playbook for this. The government is sort of feeling its way.
He added: ‘It could well be the case that the economy could be open still further. The economic damage that we could sustain could be worse than the damage from the virus itself.’
In other coronavirus developments in Britain today:
Reacting to the R rate data, Keith Neal, emeritus professor of the epidemiology of infectious diseases at the University of Nottingham, said: ‘Making estimates of R with small number of cases becomes increasingly difficult and inaccurate. Hence the wide range of the estimates.
‘A local cluster in one part of a region such as Leicester in the East Midlands can give a value over 1 overall for the region but the figure would be much lower in the rest of the region.
‘These local clusters need to be identified and managed with locally targeted measures.
‘For many parts of the country infection rates continue to fall but caution and avoidance of high risk mixing needs to continue.
‘If R goes above 1 this is likely to be due a mixture of areas with some above and below 1.
‘The best way the public can help control COVID-19 is to get tested if they have symptoms, and if positive isolate and identify their contacts.’
Testing data is collected by the ONS 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 households taking part in the survey were tested for Covid-19 regardless of whether they had symptoms or not. The ONS study does not include infections in care homes.
This week’s update was based on the results of 120,0000 swab tests taken over six weeks, of which just 53 were positive.
Because such few people are testing positive now, there is a high degree of uncertainty about how to extrapolate from their data to the whole population, the ONS says.
The report did not find any evidence that coronavirus was more prevalent in different regions of England – despite Leicester, Blackburn, Greater Manchester and Aberdeen all being hit with tougher lockdown restrictions recently.
But the government-run agency said this was partly due to the small sample sizes of people from each region which make it statistically difficult to estimate regional infection rates.
In the report released today, the ONS said the percentage of people testing positive for Covid-19 has decreased since the start of the study on April 26.
But it added: ‘Modelling suggests it has been rising since the lowest recorded estimate, which was at the end of June. There is now evidence to suggest that this trend may have levelled off.’
One of the UK’s top experts, Professor Carl Heneghan, this week warned against reading too much into rising infection data.
Professor Heneghan, director of Oxford University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine, said the rising infection rates are down to more people being tested and warned of inaccuracies in the data.
He said putting 4.5million people in the North West under tough new lockdown measures last week was a ‘rash’ decision because there is no concrete evidence to suggest Covid-19 cases are actually rising.
Professor Heneghan claims that the number of swab tests given to the public through DIY kits sent in the post and at drive-through centres had soared by as much as 80 per cent in some areas in the North West, which was skewing the figures.
Professor Tim Spector, an epidemiologist based at King’s College London, has also shot down Boris Johnson and Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s talks of a second wave.
Professor Spector is the brains behind KCL’s Covid Symptom Tracking app, used by more than a million Britons, which has helped scientists map the UK’s crisis and predict infection rates.
He said data from his app did not support the theory that cases were spiking. His app shows that cases are slowly rising, which is probably influenced by more tests, according to the epidemiologist.
The Government’s most up-to-date surveillance study, called REACT-1, showed that Covid-19 cases continued to fall after some lockdown measures were eased.
A total of 123 Britons were diagnosed with the infection out of a sample size of nearly 160,000 people between June 9 and July 8 — an incidence rate of 0.07 per cent. This was down by almost half from May, when 159 people out of 120,620 tested positive (0.13 per cent).
Non-essential shops were allowed to reopen on June 15, and ministers allowed single-person households to mix with other homes for the first time since the lockdown was introduced on March 23.
But the effect of the changes on July 4 — when the two-metre social distancing rule was halved and pubs, restaurants and cinemas reopened — won’t be felt until the Imperial College London team’s next report.
It comes as Britons were urged to stay away from packed beaches today amid overcrowding fears on what could be the UK’s hottest day on record with Saharan air pushing temperatures above 100F (38C) for the second time in a week.
The mercury is expected to hit at least 99F (37C) in London and the South East today, with a chance that last Friday’s 100F (37.8C) recorded at London Heathrow Airport – the UK’s third-hottest day ever – could be broken.
Beaches across the south coast were already packed by mid-morning, further stoking fears among police and local councils that tourists will ignore coronavirus social distancing rules and cram onto packed seafronts.
Temperatures this afternoon could even climb above the all-time UK record of 101.7F (38.7C), which was set last July.
But unlike last Friday, when cloud and drizzle followed, this time the heatwave is here to stay until at least Tuesday. The mercury had already hit 91F (33C) by 12.30pm today, and is set to soar further as the day continues.
Bournemouth council warned as early as 10am that eight beaches were already categorised as ‘avoid, social distancing not possible’ on the Dorset coast – including Sandbanks, Mudeford, Highcliffe and Durley Chine.
All car parks in Sandbanks were full and shut by 11am, while police also warned tourists of a ‘long queue’ for the ferry.
Visitors to the South West of England were urged to avoid busy beaches, with the RNLI saying: ‘If you arrive at the beach and it is simply too crowded, consider moving on and spending your day elsewhere.’
As fears rise about a second wave across Europe, Chancellor Rishi Sunak delivered a stark warning to Britons today telling them that any country could be slapped with travel restrictions at the drop of a hat.
He said the government ‘will not hesitate’ to take action by imposing restrictions on flows from countries if necessary.
The intervention came amid claims France is ‘highly likely’ to be added to the 14-day quarantine list following a dramatic rise in infections.
The number of daily coronavirus cases in the country has risen in recent days, with 1,695 new infections being recorded just yesterday, as it battles to avoid a second wave of Covid-19. The seven-day rolling average of confirmed cases has doubled from under 10 per million of population on Jul 21 to 19.33 yesterday. By contrast the UK’s is around 12 cases per million people.
Any move by the government could force Britons to cancel or cut short their trips to avoid the two-week quarantine on their return.
Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced last night that the Bahamas, Andorra and Belgium are being taken off the UK’s quarantine-exemption list with little more than 24 hours’ notice.
In a round of interviews on a visit to Scotland this morning, Mr Sunak said: ‘It’s a tricky situation. What I can say to people is we are in the midst of a global pandemnic, and that means there is always the risk of disruption to travel plans. People need to bear that in mind.
‘It is the right thing for us to do to keep everything under review on a constant basis to be talking with our scientists, our medical advisers.
‘If we need to take action, as you have seen overnight, we will not hesitate to do that. But in the meantime people should just continue to look at the guidance and take everything into account.’
The developments in France come after its scientific committee stated earlier this week that the situation was ‘under control, but precarious. We could at any moment tip into a scenario that is less under control.’
It added: ‘The short term future of the pandemic mainly lies in the hands of the population. It is highly likely that we will experience a second epidemic wave this autumn or winter.’
The statement said the virus ‘has recently been circulating more actively, with an increased loss of distancing and barrier measures’ since France emerged from its strict two-month lockdown in May.
‘The balance is fragile and we can change course at any time to a less controlled scenario like in Spain for example,’ it said.
Paul Charles, CEO of travel consultancy The PC Agency, said: ‘Unless France takes further significant steps to reduce its case numbers, then it’s highly likely to be added later next week as the increase must be causing worries in Westminster.
‘There are several hundred thousand British tourists in France at the moment so the government must give plenty of warning if it does change its advice later next week.’
The uptick in infections in France has been bolstered by fresh coronavirus testing troubles as dozens of labs closed to allow staff a summer holiday despite signs that a second wave is building.
Doctors have warned that the vacation crunch is just part of a larger web of failures in France’s testing strategy which was described earlier this week by the government’s own virus advisory panel as disorganized and ‘insufficient’.
‘First, there is a lack of workers to do the testing. If we don’t ask all the health workers to be available by mobilizing all of them, there are just not enough people,’ emergency services doctor Christophe Prudhomme at a hospital in Bobigny, Paris.
‘And then it’s a matter of organization,’ he said, urging regional health agencies ‘to organize testing so that it’s not the citizen who has to take his phone and try to call seven or eight labs in order to get an appointment that will take place only next week.’
It is worrying news for the country which saw its hospitals nearly drown with Covid-19 patients in the first wave – in part due to inadequate testing.
The country has already lost more than 30,300 lives to the pandemic and yesterday alone recorded 1,695 new infections.
A decision by the Government is expected to be announced within the next 24 hours after ministers consider the latest data as part of their weekly review of quarantine.
Meanwhile, the Bahamas, Andorra and Belgium will be taken off the UK’s quarantine-exemption list.
Mr Shapps said people arriving in Britain from the three nations will have to quarantine from 4am on Saturday.
In a tweet he said: ‘Data shows we need to remove Andorra, Belgium and The Bahamas from our list of coronavirus Travel Corridors in order to keep infection rates DOWN.
‘If you arrive in the UK after 0400 Saturday from these destinations, you will need to self-isolate for 14 days.’
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has designated all Belgium as a ‘code orange’ for the new coronavirus, meaning the number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants is 20 or above for two weeks.
Separately, Malaysia and Brunei have been added to the UK’s safe list. In Wales, the restrictions come into force from midnight tonight August 6. Belgium has suffered a consistent increase in cases in recent weeks, rising to 27.8 new cases per 100,000 people.
This towers over the UK’s latest rate of 8.4 per 100,000, and is higher than Spain’s 27.4 level around the time when the UK introduced travel restrictions there.
Belgium’s prime minister, Sophie Wilmes, was last week forced to put a halt to the nation’s Covid-19 exit plan by introducing drastic new social distancing measures in the hope of avoiding a new national lockdown.
Contacts outside every household were limited to the same five people for a month, in an effort to curb the spread of the virus.
In Andorra, new cases per week have increased five-fold since mid-July, while in The Bahamas the weekly case rate peaked at 78.6 last week, up from 3.1 in the middle of last month.
The countries follow Spain – which was put on the quarantine list a fortnight ago, wrecking the holiday plans of millions – and Luxembourg, which was added last week.
The British Government has been under pressure to introduce airport coronavirus tests for arrivals.
Ministers are looking at whether people coming to the UK from at-risk countries such as the US and Spain could be given tests to reduce the number of days they have to quarantine for.
And the boss of Heathrow airport has proposed a double-testing regime that would see passengers tested at their point of entry to the country, and again five to eight days later.
If given the all clear in both tests, they would no longer be required to stay at home for 14 days and could go back to normal life.