There is “widespread growth” of the Covid-19 epidemic across the UK, Government scientists have warned, as ministers announced tough restrictions affecting around 13.5 million people.
The UK R number – which represents the number of people an infected person will pass the virus to – has risen to between 1.1 and 1.4, meaning cases can rise very quickly, according to Sage.
Public Health England (PHE) warned that data published on Friday could be a sign of “far worse things to come”, as the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said cases are thought to have almost doubled in a week to 6,000-a-day in England, its worst prediction since mid-May.
Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at the Open University, described the latest R figure as “undoubtedly concerning”.
He said: “Even at growth rates within the estimated range, the number of new cases could grow to high levels quickly if the interventions are not sufficiently effective.”
It comes as ministers discuss whether further national restrictions are needed, such as forcing pubs and restaurants to close at 10pm or curbs on people socialising.
Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock stressed the focus for now was local intervention, as he announced new restrictions for large parts of England’s North West, West Yorkshire and the Midlands.
He pointed to a worrying rise in cases, with Merseyside, Warrington, Halton and Lancashire – excluding Blackpool and Greater Manchester – escalated to “areas of intervention”.
From Tuesday, the following restrictions will be enforced in these places:
– Residents must not socialise with other people outside of their own households or support bubble in private homes and gardens.
– Restaurants, pubs and bars will be restricted to table service only, while all leisure and entertainment venues including restaurants, pubs and cinemas must close between 10pm and 5am.
Residents are also advised to avoid public transport unless it is essential, as well as professional or amateur sporting events.
The new rules do not apply to Bolton or Greater Manchester, where separate restrictions are already in place.
Meanwhile, in the Midlands, people in Oadby and Wigston will be banned from socialising with others outside of their own household or support bubble in private homes and gardens from Tuesday.
In West Yorkshire, people in all parts of Bradford, Kirklees and Calderdale will be subject to the same ban on socialising.
Overall, around 13.5 million people are currently living under restrictions or will be from Tuesday.
Mr Hancock said: “We are seeing cases of coronavirus rise fast in Lancashire, Merseyside, West Yorkshire, Warrington, Halton and Wolverhampton.
“Local leaders in these areas have asked for stronger restrictions to be put in place to protect local people, and we are acting decisively to support them.
“I know these restrictions will make everyday life harder for many, but I know that residents will work together and respect the rules so we can reduce rates of transmission.”
Leicestershire County Council’s director of public health Mike Sandys said: “This steep rise is off the scale – and underlines that residents need to change their behaviour.”
It comes after Mr Hancock said a second national lockdown to curb the spread of coronavirus has not been ruled out, but the “great hope” is that people will heed current advice to help manage a “very serious” situation.
He said a national lockdown is the “last line of defence”, as he responded to reports that ministers are considering further national measures, even for just a two-week period, such as imposing a curfew on bars and restaurants.
Mr Hancock told BBC Breakfast it was “absolutely critical” people followed the rules, adding: “If we do all these things, then we can avoid having to take serious further measures.”
He added: “We want to avoid a national lockdown but we’re prepared to do it, if we need to.”
Asked on Sky News about the possibility of a two-week “circuit break” imposition of national restrictions, Mr Hancock said the Government wants to use “local action”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We want to avoid national lockdown altogether.
“I have learned over the last nine months not ever to rule anything out.
“However, it is not the proposal that’s on the table.”
On Friday, new confirmed daily cases of coronavirus hit 4,322 – the highest since May 8.
Cases of the virus and hospital admissions for Covid-19 are doubling every seven to eight days in the UK, according to the new data.
All regions of England, except the South West, also have an R that is higher than 1.0, and all have positive growth rates.
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”.
Last week, the R number was said to be between 1.0 and 1.2.
Meanwhile, the ONS said its latest estimate “shows the number of infections has increased in recent weeks”.
Our headline estimates suggest that at any given time between 4 and 10 September, around 1 in 900 people not in care homes, hospitals or other institutional settings in England would test positive for #COVID19, an average of 59,800 people https://t.co/JFGpEA0ZI1pic.twitter.com/FnvNnWoTlN
— Office for National Statistics (ONS) (@ONS) September 18, 2020
Overall, an average of 6,000 people in England per day were estimated to be newly infected with Covid-19 between September 4 and 10, almost double the 3,200 people per day from August 30 to September 5.
The figures do not include people staying in hospitals or care homes.
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.”
The Government is still under fire over the NHS Test and Trace system, which has seen up to four times the number of people trying to book a test as the number of tests available.
Experts have said that without effective testing and tracing, it will be much harder to control the spread of the virus and pinpoint larger outbreaks.
Globally, confirmed cases of the coronavirus have topped 30 million worldwide, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University.