Boris Johnson has confirmed that national lockdown measures may be needed to deal with an “inevitable” second wave of coronavirus, as new figures showed infections could be doubling in the UK as fast as every seven days.
New restrictions come into force on Tuesday across large areas of north-west England, the Midlands and West Yorkshire, bringing the total under some form of local lockdown to around 13.5 million people - more than one in five of the UK’s population.
And scientists from the government’s Sage advisory group are proposing a two-week “circuit break” effort to damp down the fast-spreading infection by shutting bars and restaurants and limiting movements nationwide, timed for the half-term period at the end of October to avoid excessive disruption to schools.
But there were calls for faster action, with one member of Sage, Professor Susan Michie of University College London, saying “a raft of national restrictions” is needed immediately to prevent Covid-19 getting out of control and claiming thousands more lives.
A new estimate put the current R transmission rate of coronavirus for the whole nation between 1.1 and 1.4. Last week the figure - which measures the number of people each contagious person passes the illness on to - stood at between 1 and 1.2. But the figure is rising in all parts of England, with everywhere except the South-West now over the crucial threshold of one, above which the disease can spread exponentially.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said it was “concerned” that the current doubling time “could be as quick as every seven days nationally, and potentially even faster in some areas of the country”.
Speaking during a visit to Oxford, the prime minister made clear national action was not being ruled out, though he said he did not want “the kind of lockdown we had in March and April” and wanted to keep schools and the economy open “as far as we possibly can”.
Mr Johnson said: “There’s no question that we are now seeing a second wave coming in. We’ve seen in France and Spain, across Europe. It’s been, I’m afraid, absolutely inevitable that we would see it in this country.”
He added: “We want to keep the schools open - that's going to happen. I will try and keep all parts of the economy open, as far as we possibly can.
“I don’t think anybody wants to go into a second lockdown but clearly, when you look at what is happening, you've got to wonder whether we need to go further than the ‘rule of six’ that we brought in on Monday.” Mr Johnson said ministers will be considering “intensifying” local lockdowns already in place in areas from Greater Manchester to Birmingham, Leicester and the North-East, but also “looking at other measures as well”. He promised to keep people informed of the science behind any regional or national measures “if or when” they are introduced.
The PM was coming under intense pressure to call an urgent meeting of the government’s Cobra emergencies committee this weekend, with leaders of devolved administrations demanding to be invited. Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon said that “hard but necessary” decisions must be taken in the next few days if a second national lockdown is to be avoided.
Sir Keir Starmer backed calls for the committee to be convened, warning: “There is mounting concern about whether we have got the virus sufficiently under control. This is the time for swift, decisive national action. We cannot afford to be too slow.”
Mr Johnson told MPs as recently as Wednesday that a second national lockdown would be “absolutely wrong” for the country and “disastrous” for the economy.
But it was clear that a wave of chilling figures over the following days, coupled with increasing clamour for action from medical and scientific voices, was pushing the prime minister towards tougher action.
By Friday morning, health secretary Matt Hancock was admitting that a nationwide shutdown was “not off the table”, though he said it was “the last line of defence” and urged the public to help stave it off by keeping to social distancing guidelines.
Mr Hancock announced restrictions on social gatherings in homes and gardens in parts of the North-West, Midlands and West Yorkshire, along with a 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants in Merseyside, Warrington and most of Lancashire - excluding Blackpool. Residents of the North-West areas were also told to limit public transport use to essential journeys.
Areas subject to new restrictions recorded infection rates well above the 20 in 100,000 figure which has triggered quarantines on travellers from abroad.
In Wolverhampton, numbers of infections per 100,000 population increased to 61.8, while they topped 100 in Liverpool and rose to 111.2 in Warrington and 145.5 in Oadby and Wigston, near Leicester.
New figures from the Office for National Statistics showed an estimated 59,800 people in England - around one in 900 - have coronavirus, the highest level since May, with “clear evidence” of rises among under-34s.
Ominously, there was a sharp increase in 2-11 year-olds testing positive a fortnight after the return to schools across England.
An average of 6,000 people in England per day were estimated to be newly infected with Covid-19 between 4-10 September, compared to 3,200 the week before, according to the ONS. And Mr Johnson confirmed that rates were rising in the oldest age-groups most susceptible to severe illness and death from the disease.
Although deaths are currently low, experts expect them to rise, with Sage saying the R number “shows that we are moving to wider spread growth in transmission at a faster rate”.
Yvonne Doyle, medical director at Public Health England, said: “We’re seeing clear signs this virus is now spreading widely across all age groups and I am particularly worried by the increase in rates of admission to hospital and intensive care among older people.
“This could be a warning of far worse things to come.”
Mr Hancock described it as “a big moment for the country”.
“We’re watching vigilantly,” he said. “But we can see the number of cases accelerating and we’re prepared to do what it takes both to protect lives and to protect livelihoods.”
University of Reading associate microbiology professor Simon Clarke said that the data suggested that Covid-19 was not yet “uncontrollable” but warned that holding it at bay will require strict engagement by the public in social distancing and hygiene rules.
And he warned: “In the spring, Covid-19 put a large numbers people into hospital, very quickly, hindering the ability of the NHS to deliver care to people in pain on waiting lists, cancer sufferers and denied pregnant women from having the support of their partners. That could easily happen again.”
And Prof Michie said: “We need action now. Delaying for two weeks earlier in year was generally agreed to be a terrible mistake. Are we going to repeat it? Thousands of lives are at stake.
“We need to do a raft of national restrictions now - waiting till October is too late.”
The ONS figures revealed that 59 per cent of all those who died of coronavirus between March and mid-July were disabled.
The chief executive of disability charity Sense, Richard Kramer, said: “The stark reality is that disabled people and their families have been forgotten and are not part of the government’s to-do list. We now need a dedicated plan in response to Covid-19 for disabled children, adults and their families.”
Mr Hancock also announced a new plan to curb the spread of Covid infections in care homes over the winter months by providing free personal protective equipment (PPE) to all residents and staff and providing funding to allow staff to work at only one home rather than risking cross-infection by moving between them.
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