Coronavirus: Up to 55,000 people could be infected in UK, government says

Lockdown measures should keep death toll down, but a ‘good outcome’ would still see as many as 20,000 fatalities, says chief scientific adviser

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
,Lizzy Buchan
Tuesday 17 March 2020 15:15
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Patrick Vallance says as many as 55,000 could be infected with coronavirus

As many as 55,000 people in the UK could have the coronavirus, the government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has told MPs.

And Sir Patrick told the Commons’ Health and Social Care Committee that keeping the death toll from the outbreak below 20,000 would represent a “good outcome”.

The estimates came as NHS England announced it was suspending non-urgent operations for at least three months from 15 April to make more hospital beds available for coronavirus patients. Some 15,000 beds could be freed by discharging patients from hospitals, NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens told the committee.

Boris Johnson, the prime minister, previously suggested that as many as 10,000 people could be infected by the end of last week, though only 1,950 people have so far been diagnosed in tests.

Jeremy Hunt, chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, told Sir Patrick that he understood that around 1,000 people might be infected for every recorded death, and that this might mean that “there are potentially now about 55,000 cases”.

“Does that feel right to you?” asked the former health secretary.

Sir Patrick replied: “We’ve tried to get a handle on that in Sage [the scientific advisory group for emergencies]. If you put all the modelling information together, that’s a reasonable ballpark way of looking at it. It’s not more accurate than that.”

Sir Patrick said that the impact of the lockdown measures announced on Monday by the PM could be expected to be seen in “two to three weeks” in the shape of declining numbers of new cases.

He agreed with Mr Hunt that, if they succeeded, the measures could bring the total number of potential deaths down from the hundreds of thousands to 20,000 or fewer.

“That’s the hope – that we could get it down to that,” said Sir Patrick.

“To put that in perspective, every year in seasonal flu the number of excess deaths is thought to be about 8,000. If we can get this down to numbers 20,000 and below, that is a good outcome in terms of where we would hope to get to with this outbreak.

“But that is still horrible. That is still an enormous number of deaths and an enormous pressure on the health service.”

Sir Patrick told the committee that Public Health England does not currently have the capacity to conduct the necessary tests to monitor the outbreak effectively.

“At the moment the UK has done something like 44,000 tests, which I think is in the top three or four countries in terms of testing,” he said.

“Public Health England have got a capacity of about 4,000 or so per day. That clearly is not going to be enough going forward.

“One of the recommendations from Sage is that we really do need to get our testing in the right position to make sure that we can monitor this effectively.”

At present, priority is being given to testing patients in intensive care and those with respiratory illnesses and pneumonia in hospital, as well as isolating “clusters” of infections.

Sir Patrick told MPs there was a “big effort” under way to ramp up testing and extend it to more groups.

A crucial element will be searching for antibodies in the systems of people who have recovered from the infection, which would allow the health authorities to have a better idea of how many are contracting the virus without symptoms.

NHS staff will be a key priority for further testing, he said.

Sir Patrick told MPs that the option of closing down schools is “lower down the list” of measures to respond to the outbreak as the move is “not without complex consequences”.

Places like Singapore and Taiwan have achieved a slowdown in the progress of the virus without shutting the doors on their schools, he pointed out.

The chief scientific adviser also hinted at divisions among top scientists over the UK’s response, with “lively, robust discussion” taking place behind closed doors.

“If you think Sage is a cosy consensus of agreeing scientists, you would be very much mistaken,” he said.

Under questioning from MPs on advice to the elderly, Sir Patrick insisted that even healthy people over 70 should stay home.

Asked whether grandparents should go for Sunday lunch with their families, he said: “They shouldn’t do it.”

He also said people should take paracetamol instead of ibuprofen after French health minister Olivier Veran suggested that anti-inflammatory drugs could worsen the infection.

Sir Patrick told MPs: “The ibuprofen example – it may or may not be right, I don’t know, but the sensible thing to do would be to say don’t take it at the moment, take something else – paracetamol or something.”

Sir Simon Stevens told the committee that the health service currently has access to 8,175 ventilators, which are vital in the treatment of patients with severe reactions to coronavirus. This figure is expected to reach 12,000 within weeks, and Boris Johnson issued an “open-ended” call for more in a conference call with manufacturers on Monday.

Asked whether this would be enough to cope with the expected numbers of patients, Sir Simon told MPs: “It depends.”

Sir Simon Stevens (AFP/Getty)

Doctors will not be able to be confident about the “landing zone” for the outbreak for two or three weeks, when the impact of the measures announced on Monday becomes clear, he said.

And he added: “As we sit here today, less than 24 hours after those measures were announced, I think we all accept that there is a degree of uncertainty around how this will play out over the next month, two months, three months and beyond.”

Sir Simon told the committee that NHS England was suspending all non-urgent operations as part of a bid to free up 30,000 of its 98,000 general care beds for coronavirus patients.

At present, some 3,700 critical care beds are available for adult patients, he said.

He told the committee: “We are suspending elective non-urgent surgery with an assumption that that will be suspended everywhere from 15 April at the latest for at least months, but with discretion for hospitals to take action earlier if they need it.”

The NHS was also working with community care and social care services to speed the discharge of patients able to leave hospital, and was working with community hospitals, intermediate care providers and private hospitals to provide capacity for coronavirus patients, he said.

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