Professor Chris Whitty has offered a chink of light out of the lockdown after revealing coronavirus infection rates have been wrestled down.
England’s chief medical officer said the reproduction number – or R0 – has been brought below 1, marking a critical achievement in the UK’s war on Covid-19.
It means coronavirus sufferers are on average infecting less than one person, meaning the disease will wind up as it can no longer spread.
Prof Whitty, who is part of the core team steering the government’s response and has become a staple in the Downing Street briefings, suggested an easing of restrictions could happen relatively soon.
Ministers have come under pressure to publish a road map out of the lockdown, but have so far remained tight-lipped.
Professor Chris Whitty has offered a chink of light out of the lockdown after revealing coronavirus infection rates have been wrestled down
What is a reproduction number?
The reproduction number is simply the number of other people that the average coronavirus patient infects.
A virus must have a reproduction number – known to scientists as an R0 (R-nought) – of more than one for an outbreak to be able to carry on.
If it’s prevented from spreading on at least a one-to-one ratio it will quickly run out of new victims and the epidemic will come to an end if the R0 can be kept down.
A higher number means a faster spreading outbreak, and a number lower than one means the outbreak will run out of steam and be forced to an end.
Speaking to MPs on the Science and Technology Select Committee, Prof Whitty said: ‘The R that we have at the moment is somewhere between 0.5 and 1.
‘Let’s say for the sake of argument it is in the middle of that range, which I think is likely, that does give a little bit of scope for manoeuvre and ticking some things off while still keeping it below 1.
‘But there are lots of ifs, buts and ands to that. On the one hand, do not anticipate as I hope I have made reasonably clear repeatedly, that we are suddenly going to be able to lift everything, but nor do I think it likely that we will have to keep in exactly the current pattern for the indefinite future.
‘There’s somewhere between those two, and working out exactly what that is, and what the timescale of that is, and what the package is, is going to be a difficult task for governments all around the world, and certainly obviously including the UK.’
In the wide-ranging grilling from backbenchers, Prof Whitty also warned that health issues other than coronavirus could be brought about by the epidemic.
Delayed treatment for non-Covid-19 patients, such as elective surgery, would likely see their pre-existing conditions slide, he said.
He also braced MPs for growing medical issues brought by an economic downturn, which often triggers mental health problems.
Prof Whitty also defended the government for abandoning contact tracing in the early stages while other countries were rigorously testing.
Ministers have come under pressure to publish a road map out of the lockdown, but have so far remained tight-lipped (busy Hyde Park pictured)
He explained how the nature of Covid-19, with some people not displaying symptoms, made containing the virus difficult and it was spreading at speed.
He said: ‘Initially, the policy was ‘let’s see if we can contain this’ and every country in the world took different versions of this but broadly that’s what we were doing.
‘Once this became clearly a global pandemic…it was really going to come in, coming from multiple sources…
‘At that point, a combination of where the epidemic was in the UK, where the epidemic was in Europe, and our own capacity meant that trying to do this, and deploy all our resources to try to do this with the ratio of people who would be followed up where you couldn’t say ‘we’ll start off with where you come from geographically’…we’re going to have to do this on syndrome, with a very non-specific syndrome…(and) this is a very different disease spreading at phenomenal speed, doubling every three to four days at this stage, my technical view and our technical view collectively was it really wasn’t likely to add a huge amount at that particular point, given the resources we had.
‘Now, in a different situation with huge different resources, you know, if you did a mental experiment in which we had infinite testing, infinite numbers of people trained, we might have taken a different view but in any emergency of any sort, you deal with the tools you’ve got, and the situation you find yourselves in.’