Matt Hancock has denied that the government is losing control of the coronavirus, as he admitted that this weekend’s spike in cases was “concerning”.
The health secretary was speaking after the number of recorded daily infections in the UK shot up to 2,988 on Sunday – the highest figure since 22 May.
Speaking on LBC radio, Mr Hancock said it was not the case that the sharp increase in positive cases was simply the result of more tests being done.
And he said that any upsurge due to schools returning last week would “not yet” have shown up in the figures.
He confirmed that younger people were highly represented among the new cases, particularly those from “affluent” areas.
And he warned against complacency over the lower risk of Covid-19 to the young, pointing out that even though they are at lower risk of death, they can still experience serious symptoms and pass the illness on to older relatives.
“Don’t infect your grandparents,” he warned.
Responding to the weekend’s figures, Mr Hancock said: “The rise in the number of cases we have seen in the last few days is concerning. It is concerning because we have seen a rise in cases in France, in Spain, in some other countries across Europe – nobody wants to see a second wave here.”
Hospitalisations with the coronavirus have gone up 14-fold since mid-July in Spain and trebled over the past month in France, said Mr Hancock.
Asked whether he had “lost control” of the pandemic in the UK, Mr Hancock said: “No, but the whole country needs to following social distancing.
“We can only do this as a whole society. Everybody has a role to play.”
He appealed to younger people to stick to social distancing measures, saying that under-25s, particularly those aged 17 to 21, accounted for a large number of positive coronavirus cases.
He said that big social events were “completely inappropriate” at a time of coronavirus.
And he said the latest outbreaks did not appear to be linked to social deprivation.
“Over the summer we had particular problems in some of the areas that are most deprived,” said the health secretary.
“Actually, the recent increase we have seen in the last few days is more broadly spread.
“It’s actually among more affluent younger people where we have seen the rise.”
When asked if people were not following the rules, he added: “We certainly see cases where they are not, and then we take action.”
He said that many cases in Bolton were linked to a single pub that has been told to close, while similar action was taken in relation to a chicken food factory linked to a cluster of cases in Norfolk.
After a spate of people seeking tests being asked to travel hundreds of miles to find a centre, Mr Hancock admitted there were “problems” with the system.
Confronted by one phone-in caller form Nottingham who said he was told to go to Dundee, the health secretary said that no one should be instructed to drive further than 75 miles for a test.
“Over the summer we have seen demand for tests go up and so if your local centre is full, then people were asked to go a long way,” he said.
“The vast majority of people get access to a test at their local testing centre and it is turned around very rapidly.
“But there have been problems and we are increasing capacity.”
Mr Hancock said a vaccine was “most likely” to be available in the first few months of 2021.
Pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca has already begun to manufacture 30 million doses of one vaccine ordered by the UK, ready for them to be used if it is approved, he said.
“Should approval come through – and it’s still not certain, but it is looking up – should that approval come through, then we are ready to roll out,” said Mr Hancock.
“The best-case scenario is that happens this year. I think more likely is the early part of next year – in the first few months of next year is the most likely.
“But we’ve also bought vaccine, ahead of it getting approved, from a whole different series of international vaccines as well.”
He held out hope for theatres being able to open for pantomimes this Christmas even if no vaccine is available, by stepping up the use of faster testing methods.
“That is the hope that we hold out for the nation, that we can get things going even if there isn’t a vaccine, that we can use mass testing so people can check whether they have the virus today,” he said.
“There’s a new technology that we’re backing to get a test where you can have the turn-around essentially on the spot and so you can imagine being able to go to something like the theatre, or a sports event, or to work, and you have the test, you get the result back and then they can go into the theatre.
“That is what we’re working on, that is the hope, and I also hope that will allow us to have a Merry Christmas.”
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