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by Alain Tolhurst
22 September 2020
COVID-19 alert level for the UK increased to level four

Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance - Image credit: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire/PA Images

COVID-19 alert level for the UK increased to level four

The Joint Biosecurity Centre has recommended that the COVID-19 alert level for the UK be increased to level four, meaning transmission of the virus is “high or rising exponentially”.

It comes after a briefing that the UK could see more than 200 deaths a day from coronavirus in November if people do not stick to the rules on halting the spread of the disease, according to the country’s top scientists.

In a dire warning ahead of a potential second lockdown, England’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance, said on Monday that at the current rate of spread there could be 50,000 new infections per day recorded in mid-October.

In a televised press conference alongside the chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, he said this would lead to a massive increase in hospitalisations and eventually fatalities from COVID-19.

The chief medical officers of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland said in a joint statement: “After a period of lower COVID cases and deaths, the number of cases are now rising rapidly and probably exponentially in significant parts of all four nations.

“If we are to avoid significant excess deaths and exceptional pressure in the NHS and other health services over the autumn and winter, everyone has to follow the social distancing guidance, wear face coverings correctly and wash their hands regularly.

“We know this will be concerning news for many people; please follow the rules, look after each other and together we will get through this.”

Speaking the day before Boris Johnson is expected to unveil further restrictions for England in a statement to the House of Commons and Nicola Sturgeon will announce new measures for Scotland to the Scottish Parliament, Vallance compared the UK’s surging infection rates to the situation in France and Spain, which had seen a similar rise several weeks ago.

“It started with younger people in their 20s and spread gradually to older ages as well,” he said.

“That increasing case number has translated into an increase in hospitalisations.

“As the hospitalisations have increased you will see that very sadly, but not unexpectedly, deaths are also increasing.”

Vallance said there is a “simple message” from this comparison, which is that unless the disease is put under control it will lead to a rise in fatalities.

He said roughly 70,000 people in the UK currently have COVID-19 and about 6,000 more per day are getting the infection, then showed a slide projecting what such increases could lead to, though he added it was “not a prediction, but it is a way of thinking about how quickly this can change”.

He said: “At the moment we think that the epidemic is doubling roughly every seven days, could be a little bit longer, a little bit shorter, but let's say roughly every seven days. 

“And that's quite a big if, but if that continues unabated, and this grows, doubling every seven days then what you see, of course, let's say there were 5,000 today, will be 10,000 next week 20,000 the week after 40,000 the week after. 

“And you can see that by mid-October, if that continued, you would end up with something like 50,000 cases in the middle of October per day.”

He added: “50,000 cases per day would be expected to lead a month later, so the middle of November, to 200 plus deaths.”

Speaking after him, Whitty hinted further curbs on people’s social lives could be needed to slow down the increase in infections.

He said: “You cannot in an epidemic just take your own risk, unfortunately you're taking a risk on behalf of everybody else. It's important that we see this as something we have to do collectively.”

Of all the things needed to reduce the risk of spread, he said “the most difficult is that we have to break unnecessary links between households, because that is the way in which this virus is transmitted.”

The Prime Minister held a series of calls with the first ministers of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales on Monday afternoon ahead of the first COBRA meeting for several months on Tuesday morning.

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