Coronavirus: ‘Early signs’ show spread of outbreak in UK could be slowing, says leading professor

Scientist advising government offers glimmer of hope as ministers say restrictions could be in place for six months

Lizzy Buchan,Ashley Cowburn
Monday 30 March 2020 20:43 BST
Professor: Early signs show spread of coronavirus slowing in the UK

Social distancing measures aimed at tackling the outbreak of coronavirus are “making a difference”, according the government’s chief scientific adviser.

Sharing slides from the government’s emergency committee Cobra, Patrick Vallance said the restrictions were “successful” in changing behaviours across the UK, including drastic decreases in use of buses, national rail and the London Underground transport system.

“The measures are in place, they are making a difference, they are decreasing the contact which is so important to the spread the disease and we’re doing a good job at cutting that down,” he said at a Downing Street press conference.

But he warned the public to expect the figures on hospital admissions as a result of the virus to get “worse” over a two to three week period due to a lag between people contracting Covid-19 and then needing to use the health service.

As Britons were warned that restrictions could stay in place for six months, Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, also said on Monday he believed the “epidemic is just about slowing in the UK right now” as a result of lockdown measures.

Prof Ferguson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “In the UK we can see some early signs in slowing in some indicators, less so in deaths because deaths are lagged by a long time from when measures come in force.

“But if we look at the numbers of new hospital admissions per day for instance, that does appear to be slowing down a little bit now.

“It’s not yet plateaued so still the numbers can be increasing each day but the rate of that increase has slowed.”

Prof Ferguson said the epidemic was spreading at different rates in different parts of the country, with up to five per cent of the population in London likely to have been infected.

“It is quite clear the epidemic is in different stages in different parts of the country,” he said.

“In central London it could be as many as 3 per cent to 5 per cent of the population has been infected – maybe more in individual hot spots. In the country as a whole in the UK, maybe 2 per cent or 3 per cent.”

Antibody tests to determine if people have had the virus, which are currently in final stages of validation, would “hopefully” be available in days.

It comes after Dr Jenny Harries, England’s deputy chief medical officer, warned that restrictions would be in place for six months, but the nation will not be in “complete lockdown”, with social distancing measures lifted gradually.

The nation’s sacrifice would be “wasted” if the lockdown was lifted too quickly, she said, adding: “We need to keep that lid on and then gradually we will be able to hopefully adjust some of the social distancing measures and gradually get us all back to normal.”

Helen Whately, a junior health minister, said it was a “marathon not a sprint” but a review would take place in two or three weeks time of the effectiveness of the stricter measures currently in place.

Ms Whately said ministers were “ramping up” capacity to test NHS staff for the coronavirus but admitted that only 7,000 a day were carried over the weekend – despite the ability to do 10,000 tests daily.

“Within the next three weeks we expect to get to 25,000 tests a day,” she said.

“The really important thing about that – the effort to test NHS and social care staff – is that we can prioritise the testing to parts of the health and care system where we have particular staff shortages so that we can help by testing people so that we can identify if they are negative so they would no longer need to isolate and they can go back to work.”

Ms Whately refused to say when the antibody tests would be available, but said work was ongoing to get the tests ready.

“I am not going to confirm when that is going to arrive. Work has been going on to bring that forwards because that will be really helpful to our battle against coronavirus,” she said.

The minister acknowledged there had been delays in getting critical protective equipment to NHS staff but said that more than 170 million items of personal protective equipment had been delivered to health and social care organisations.

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson announced that 20,000 NHS staff have returned to the frontline to tackle the pandemic in a video message from his flat above No 11 where he is self isolating.

He chose to contradict Margaret Thatcher’s famous claim that “there is no such thing as society”, saying: “We are going to do it, we are going to do it together.

“One thing I think the coronavirus crisis has already proved is that there really is such a thing as society.”

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