Coronavirus is “running riot” across all age groups, a scientist advising the Government has warned, as Boris Johnson considers imposing stringent new national lockdown restrictions next week.
The Prime Minister will chair a meeting of his Cabinet at 1.30pm on Saturday to discuss the Government’s response to the crisis, with further measures expected to be outlined in due course.
Everywhere except essential shops and education settings could be closed for a month under the proposals seen by The Times newspaper.
Mr Johnson has so far resisted pressure to introduce nationwide restrictions, opting instead for a localised tier system, but he is facing fresh calls for action after new data showed the extent of cases across England.
The Office for National Statistics estimated that 568,100 people in households were infected with coronavirus in the week ending October 23, and Government scientific advisers believe it is now too late for a two-week national circuit-breaker to have enough of an effect.
Professor Calum Semple, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), speaking in a personal capacity, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “For the naysayers that don’t believe in a second wave, there is a second wave.
“And, unlike the first wave, where we had a national lockdown which protected huge swathes of society, this outbreak is now running riot across all age groups.”
Fellow Sage scientist Professor John Edmunds said the only way to have a “relatively safe” Christmas is to take “stringent” action now to bring the incidence of the virus “right down”.
He said the current strategy “guarantees high incidence across the country over the winter”, and that, while restrictions do not have to be national, there is a danger that, even in the South West where cases are lower, hospitals will be under pressure within weeks.
“I think the only real way that we have a relatively safe Christmas is to get the incidence right down because otherwise I think Christmas is very difficult for people – nobody wants to have a disrupted Christmas holiday period where you can’t see your family and so on,” he said.
“So I think the only way that that can be safely achieved is to bring the incidence right down, and in order to do that we have to take action now and that action needs to be stringent, unfortunately.”
His comments came after a senior Government scientific adviser said it is “definitely too late to think that the two-week circuit-breaker on it own will sort this out”.
“It would bring it down a bit but it wouldn’t be enough to bring (the R value) right down. A two-week circuit-breaker would have an effect but now almost certainly it would need to go on for longer to have a significant effect.”
They said the R needs to be brought below one in many places to “get it down to levels that don’t run the risk of breaching health service capacity”, while in other regions the growth needs to flatten for that to happen.
The “longer you leave it”, they warned, “the more difficult it is to turn this around”.
Labour criticised the Government for “dithering”, with shadow business minister Lucy Powell saying: “Its refusal to follow the science means we have missed the half-term holiday when it could have had its most impact.
“It sounds like it is going to have to be longer than it would have had to have been because we are doing it too late.”
The Government’s plan was briefed to selective newspapers on Friday evening, sparking criticism from John Apter, chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, which represents 120,000 officers.
He said such an approach increased pressure on the emergency services, tweeting: “To those briefing selective media on a potential national lockdown please understand the impact this has.
“It creates a media frenzy, causes confusion and ahead of any official announcement encourages some to make the most of their pre-lockdown time. This is not a good mix!”
The proposed restrictions have led to fresh calls for more financial help for affected businesses, on the day the furlough scheme closes and is replaced by the Chancellor’s Job Support Scheme (JSS).
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UK Hospitality, said a national lockdown would be “absolutely devastating” for the industry and called for the sector to receive “significant additional help in order to get through this”.
France and Germany announced national lockdown restrictions earlier this week, while in Northern Ireland pubs and restaurants were closed for four weeks starting on October 16 with the exception of takeaways and deliveries. Schools were closed for two weeks.
Wales is currently under a “firebreak” lockdown, with leisure, hospitality and tourism businesses closed, and in Scotland the majority of people will be under Level 3 of a new five-tier system from Monday.
In other developments:
– A further 274 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Friday, the Government said, while a further 24,405 lab-confirmed cases were recorded in the UK.
– More than a dozen regions in England moved into Tier 2 restrictions on Saturday, including Carlisle, after an announcement was made on Friday evening.
– The other areas are: the East Riding of Yorkshire, Kingston-Upon-Hull, North East Lincolnshire, North Lincolnshire, Dudley, Staffordshire, Telford, the Wrekin, Amber Valley, Bolsover, Derbyshire Dales, Derby City, South Derbyshire, the whole of High Peak, Charnwood, Luton and Oxford.
– The Prime Minister’s promise to increase the UK’s Covid-19 testing capacity to 500,000 per day by the end of October looked set to be met, as the latest capacity figures stood at 480,000.
– The UK Government is expected to hold a discussion on a “common approach to Christmas” across the UK, Wales’s First Minister Mark Drakeford said.