A senior UK health chief said the country could be in lockdown for another six months in order to prevent the coronavirus coming back.
Deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries, said some, but not all, of the dramatic measures imposed this week could last until September.
It comes as one of the government’s top coronavirus advisors admitted the UK’s epidemic will get worse before it gets better but the peak of it could pass by Easter.
Professor Neil Ferguson said that if the current nationwide lockdown works, the demand on intensive care units should peak within two or three weeks.
The virus expert, from Imperial College London, was one of the authors behind a study which may have saved Britain after warning the Government its plan could kill thousands of people. He later caught the virus himself and recovered.
He now says he believes the NHS will be able to cope with the outbreak thanks to the stay-at-home measures that were put in place this week.
Despite fears over a lack of intensive care beds and staff going off sick, Professor Ferguson yesterday told MPs that he is confident the health service will remain ‘within capacity’ and that strain would ‘peak in approximately two to three weeks and then decline thereafter’.
But the CEO of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals around the country, warned medics are already facing a ‘continuous tsunami’ of patients and that the ‘explosion’ of cases was bigger than they had expected.
Dr Jenny Harries agreed yesterday that she hoped the worst of the outbreak could be done by Easter.
This could mean the UK faces its darkest days in the next two weeks but suggests there is light at the end of the tunnel and normality could begin to return in summer.
It chimes with predictions made earlier this month by one disease expert who predicted Easter would mark the height of the first wave and the virus would return in the autumn.
Dr Harries said on BBC Radio 4’s Women’s Hour that the Government did not want people to have to change their lifestyles for an unnecessarily long time.
But, she added: ‘We don’t want to lift those measures [too soon] and find that we have a sudden upsurge and our efforts will have been wasted.
‘Overall we are looking at a scenario of over a six-month period but not necessarily with a lock down of this level going on throughout that time.
‘We are likely able to raise some of the measures as we go forward and keep in a very controlled pattern.’
Her comments come after she said in a Q&A on Mumsnet yesterday that the current surging numbers of cases should have come under control by Easter, which falls on the weekend of April 10.
She said: ‘What we hope is that in about two to three weeks, if people have continued to do as we have asked, and cut down their social interactions, we would start to see a change in the slop’e of the graph,’ The Telegraph reported.
‘That means the peak will be pushed forward, but the height of it will be lower and we can manage all those who need hospital and health care safely through our NHS.’
Dr Harries’ comments suggest the fast increase in new daily coronavirus patients, which is happening now, could start to plateau as the spread of it is slowed by people staying at home.
In the past week at least 6,903 new cases of the coronavirus have been diagnosed in the UK.
By comparison, the week before saw 2,170.
Because almost all the tests are being done in hospitals the majority of these people are needing medical care and rapid increases put extra strain on the hospitals.
Reducing the number of new cases each week – even if it means the overall number is bigger in the long run – will make it easier for the NHS to cope, and this is what the Government is trying to achieve by forcing people to stay at home.
But there is still a backlog of already-infected people that will descend on hospitals in the coming days.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Professor Neil Ferguson said: ‘London is going to be very difficult in the next two to three weeks.
‘All I would say is, with the lockdown now in place, those numbers are going to start to plateau. The challenge we have is there’s a lag.
‘The people being admitted to hospital right now were infected a week, two weeks, even sometimes three weeks ago, so without doubt the next one [or] two weeks are going to be very difficult.’
Chief of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson, said on Today that hospitals in London were already struggling but were coping with a huge rise in cases.
He said extra capacity which had been added to deal with the crisis was welcome but was being filled up very quickly – and the Excel conference centre, which is being turned into a field hospital with 4,000 beds – would fill up quickly, too.
Mr Hopson said hospitals had been staggered by ‘the number of patients that are arriving, the speed with which they’re arriving and how ill they are.
‘They talk about wave after wave after wave; the word that’s often used to me is a continuous tsunami and I think, as one CEO said to me yesterday, this is much bigger and much larger numbers with a greater degree of stretch than you ever have possibly imagined.’
The prediction of an Easter peak fits with one made by Dr Peter Piot three weeks ago, when he said the virus could return in the autumn if this happens.
Dr Piot, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said: ‘We’ve got a reasonable worst-case scenario… that involves 80 per cent of the population and we think the mortality rate is one per cent or lower. I expect it to be less than that.
‘It takes about 12 weeks to reach the peak then maybe about 12 weeks to go away again.’
Earlier this month Professor Ferguson, a key member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), produced a report suggesting more than 20,000 people might die from coronavirus.
But yesterday he told Parliament’s science and technology committee that the death toll could be ‘substantially lower than that’.
On Radio 4 today he added that most of the people who were dying were already sick, potentially terminally ill, and would probably have died soon without the virus.
‘Looking at the profile of deaths we see and looking at the expected mortality in those groups… about two thirds of people who are unfortunately affected by this virus are towards the very end of their lives anyhow, we estimate,’ he said.
‘I should say it still leaves a third, and we have heard cases of really quite healthy, young and, indeed, old people who have been affected and died because of this virus.
‘I think this is important to bear in mind but really shouldn’t affect the decisions we make.’
Old people – in their 70s, 80s and above – are the most at risk of developing severe cases of the coronavirus, statistics have shown.
In even more hopeful news, Andrew Pollard, professor of paediatric infection and immunity at the University of Oxford, who was also called before the science committee, said a vaccine could be available within six months.
Previously many experts have said a vaccine which could end the devastation of the pandemic is at least a year away.
‘I believe that six months is possible, but it needs a lot of things to fall in place in order for that to happen,’ Professor Pollard said.
On the NHS, Professor Ferguson said: ‘With the strategy being adopted now, we think that in some areas ICUs (intensive care units) will get very close to capacity but that it will not be breached at a national level.’
He said some regions would be ‘extremely stressed’ by the surge of patients.
But he added: ‘We are reasonably confident – it’s all we can be at the current time – that at the national level we will be within capacity.’
A study involving Professor Ferguson had predicted 250,000 people could die in the UK under the Government’s previous strategy, which was focused on controlling the disease spread rather than trying to stop it.
He said: ‘We assessed in that report… that fatalities would be probably likely to exceed about 20,000 with effectively a lockdown and social distancing strategy, but it could be substantially lower than that.’
But chief medical officer Chris Whitty said there was no guarantee the NHS would not exceed its capacity, although the lockdown and NHS work to increase resources would narrow the ‘gap’.
Officials, scientists and doctors will all be watching UK hospitals in the coming days and weeks to see whether the dramatic lockdown measures are working.
The UK has recorded 43 coronavirus deaths in the past 24 hours compared to 87 on Tuesday, but new infections increased by a record 1,452 to 9,529 as Britons continued to flout the lockdown.
Twenty-eight more patients died in England, six more patients died in Scotland, five in Wales and four in Northern Ireland – bringing the total death toll to 465.
They included a 47-year-old who did not have any other health problems. The others who died, including one person aged 93, did have underlying health conditions.
Despite the death rate falling by half between Tuesday and Wednesday, the country yesterday saw a record spike in the number of cases, with 1,452 more patients known to have caught the deadly virus, bringing the total number of cases to 9,529.
The Department of Health and Social Care late on Wednesday evening confirmed a total of 97,019 people have been tested with found 87,490 negative. The update said that 463 people had been killed by the virus, but it added that the data did not cover a 24 hour period.
The update for the previous death toll on Tuesday was at 1pm, so the data only covers from then until 9am Wednesday, which would explain some if not all of the difference in the death rate.
Scotland only announced two deaths on Tuesday, while Wales confirmed just one. Both countries have now had 22 coronavirus victims.
Northern Ireland this afternoon announced two more fatalities as well as two last night, taking their total to seven deaths.
The true size of the outbreak is unclear because only patients in hospital are routinely tested. The true size of the outbreak is likely to be closer to the 400,000 mark, experts have said.
Despite clear government guidance, members of the public are continuing to the rules by heading out to sunbathe on the second day of the coronavirus lockdown.
Footage has emerged showing police dispersing Britons gathering in parks and other public places, with people gathering despite strict advice to stay at home yo avoid the outbreak overwhelming the NHS.
In Shepherd’s Bush in West London, people soaked up the sun, seemingly oblivious to the tight restrictions imposed by the government on Monday. Police were seen telling the sun worshipers to leave and go home.
Others were seen enjoying the weather at Battersea Park in South West London, on the beach in Portsmouth and in the sea off Eastbourne today despite the Prime Minister urging people to stay at home.
Meanwhile in Manchester, officers today dispersed groups, some of which greeted each other with a hug, along with sunbathers in Piccadilly Gardens. Police also used megaphones to tell people to stay at home unless absolutely necessary, saying ‘this is serious, we need to beat corona.’