Coronavirus cases are surging again in the UK because “people have relaxed too much”, the deputy chief medical officer has warned.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said the British public should start taking the pandemic “very seriously again” or face a “bumpy ride over the next few months”.
He described the rise in cases to nearly 3,000 per day – predominantly among those aged 17 to 21 - as “a signal we have got to change this now”.
"People have relaxed too much," he said. “Now is the time for us to re-engage and realise that this is a continuing threat to us.”
Separately, Professor John Edmunds - a member of the government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) - warned that coronavirus cases are "increasing exponentially”.
He said that the UK’s R value had risen “above one”, placing the country in a “risky period”.
"We can see the epidemic is taking off again. So I don't think we've hit that sweet spot where we've been able to control the epidemic and allow the economy to return to some sort of normality," Professor Edmunds told ITV.
It came after Matt Hancock issued a warning to young people that they risked putting the lives of loved ones at risk if they did not observe social distancing measures. “Don't kill your gran by catching coronavirus and then passing it on,” the health secretary told BBC Radio 1's Newsbeat.
However, ministers are coming under increasing pressure to take action to prevent a repeat of the increase in deaths that forced Boris Johnson to impose the nationwide lockdown nearly six months ago.
On Monday morning Mr Hancock denied the government had “lost control” of coronavirus and said: “We can only do this as a whole society. Everybody has a role to play.”
Hours later Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, also faced criticism for responding too slowly to rising cases across Europe, after he announced travellers to England from seven Greek islands – Lesvos, Tinos, Serifos, Mykonos, Crete, Santorini and Zakynthos – would face travel quarantine from Wednesday. Wales and Scotland had already introduced similar measures last week.
Jim McMahon, the shadow transport secretary, said the government’s handing of the crisis had been "nothing short of chaotic".
“For months, even when the virus was at its peak, millions of passengers were coming from all over the world without any restrictions placed upon them at all,” he said. "By the time restrictions were introduced, we were one of only a handful of countries in the world who up to that point had failed to take action in bringing restrictions in place."
Meanwhile in Wales, the southern borough of Caerphilly prepared for a local lockdown to begin at 6pm on Tuesday after the infection rate rose to 55.4 cases per 100,000 population, with 133 new cases of Covid-19 confirmed over the past seven days.
People will not be able to enter the borough without reasonable excuse, indoor meetings will be banned and everyone over 11 will have to wear masks in shops.
Restrictions on household visits were also extended for a further week in western parts of Scotland and expanded to include East Dunbartonshire and Renfrewshire.
Prof Van-Tam, who has previously criticised the Durham lockdown trip made by Boris Johnson’s chief aide Dominic Cummings, urged politicians and public health officials to think “how we get through this until the spring” rather than focusing on short-term management of the crisis.
He also suggested that people had stopped taking the pandemic seriously because of the fall in the number of hospital admissions and deaths since the height of the lockdown in April.
“We've been able to relax a bit over the summer, the disease levels have been really quite low in the UK through the summer,” he added. "But these latest figures really show us that much as people might like to say 'oh well it's gone away' - this hasn't gone away.
"And if we're not careful, if we don't take this incredibly seriously from this point in we're going to have a bumpy ride over the next few months.
“It's all very well saying that hospital admissions and deaths are at a very low level in the UK, which is true, but if you look further into the European Union you can see that where case numbers rise initially in the younger parts of the population they do, in turn, filter through and start to give elevated rates of disease and hospital admissions in the older age groups,” he added.
"And we know that that then becomes a serious public health problem.
"That's my concern, that if we don't get on top of this, if people don't start to take this seriously again, then there is a risk that that's where we end up."
Additional reporting by Press Association
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies