The coronavirus ‘is not out of control’ in Britain, Matt Hancock has claimed amid scientists warning the Government has lost its grip on spread of the disease.
Yesterday the UK recorded its highest number of daily Covid-19 cases since May after 2,988 were reported in just 24 hours.
The last time the UK’s caseload was this high was May 23 – 15 weeks ago – when 2,959 people tested positive.
Scientists said it’s beginning to look like the UK is ‘moving into a period of exponential growth’, and if that is the case, ‘we can expect further increases over coming weeks’.
But Health Secretary Mr Hancock tempered fears today and said cases were not out of control, while admitting cases were ‘concerning’ because ‘nobody wants a second wave’.
He said most cases were being driven by under 25s, while pleading with them to continue social distancing to avoid passing the virus onto their grandparents.
Scientists have previously said cases have risen over August as a result of increased testing in hotspots. But the data suggests the coronavirus is spreading among people more rapidly.
Labour’s shadow health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth called the figures ‘deeply concerning and worrying’ and suggests there is a real increase in the prevelane of the coronavirus.
He also demanded Mr Hancock give an urgent statement to the House of Commons to explain the testing ‘fiasco’ in which some people are still being told by the NHS test booking site to drive hundreds of miles to get a test.
The UK recorded its highest number of daily Covid-19 cases since May after 2,988 were reported in just 24 hours
A further two people died after testing positive for the bug today, bringing the UK’s total death toll to 41,551
Speaking on LBC radio this morning, Mr Hancock said: ‘This rise in case we have seen in the last few days is concerning, and it’s concerning because we have seen a rise in cases in France, Spain and some other countries in Europe.
‘Nobody wants to see a second wave here. It just reinforces the point that people must follow the social distancing rules, they are so important.’
Asked by presenter Nick Ferrari if the UK had ‘lost control’, as suggested by some experts, Mr Hancock said: ‘No, but the whole country needs to follow social distancing.
‘We certainly see cases where they are not, then we take action.
‘For example in Bolton where numbers are the highest, we traced a lot of those cases back to an individual pub and we have taken action on those pub. The pub needed to close and sort the problem out.’
Mr Hancock said the most important point to get across was that the uptick in cases in the past few days have been in younger people under 25, ‘especially 17 to 21 year olds’.
‘The message to younger people, is even though you are at a lower risk of dying from the coronavirus, you can still have really serious consequences,’ he added.
‘They can get very, very ill. And secondly it inevitably leads to older people catching it. So don’t infect your grandparents.
‘People six months on are still ill, that’s prevalent among that younger population. And also, you can infect other people.’
There has been speculation that most new cases are found among poorer communities, where there is overcrowding in housing and people in key worker jobs, for example.
HOW DOES TESTING AFFECT CASE NUMBERS?
If more people are being tested for Covid-19, this will show up in cases data, experts say. On the surface, it may look like a spike in infections, but broadly is not something to worry about because it just means more people are being diagnosed than before, when testing was limited to those in hospital.
Professor Kevin McConway, an emeritus professor of applied statistics, The Open University, said: ‘In the early stages of the pandemic, there was far less availability of testing in most countries than there now is. So one reason there are more cases is just that people have got better at looking for and finding them.’
And Dr Andrew Preston, a reader in microbial pathogenesis at University of Bath, said: Test more people, you will find more positives.
‘Initially, testing was restricted to those reporting symptoms, but this has eased and it’s now possible for a wider range of people to request tests.’
Testing capacity has rapidly increased over the course of the pandemic in order to reach more people. And this has caused a slight increase in the number of people getting a positive result – but not to levels that suggest prevalence of the virus is soaring.
A significantly higher number of people are being tested since July – when diagnosed cases were at their lowest, NHS Test and Trace data shows.
Some 442,392 people were tested between 13 August and 19 August – an almost 20 per cent increase on the 355,597 tested between July 9 and 15.
However, the positive result rate only slightly went up, from 1.12 per cent to 1.4 per cent in the same period. This shows there no that many more people testing positive compared to negative in August than in July.
Other data from Public Health England reveals a similar trend over the course of the pandemic.
Testing has increased vastly from no more than 13,000 tests per day at the start of April to around 150,000 in July.
During the same period, positive test results in Pillar 2 – which are those outside of hospitals and care homes – went drastically down from a peak of 5.2 per cent in May to 1.4 per cent in mid-July, showing that less people were testing positive for the coronavirus despite testing reaching thousands more people.
This figure has risen slightly over this month from 1.6 per cent to 2.1 per cent in the week ending August 23. But it’s a small increase when comparing with the 5 per cent seen in May. Testing has shot up to almost 200,000 per day this month.
Commenting on these figures, Dr Duncan Young, a professor of intensive care medicine at University of Oxford, told MailOnline: ‘It is therefore very possible that the increase in cases is mostly related to increased testing, but will a small additional effect from the increased prevalence.’
Despite this, it doesn’t necessarily rule out that transmission of the disease is, indeed, climbing.
Scientists admit that the evident rise in cases will be driven by more transmission in the community as a result of easing lockdown restrictions.
‘But the position isn’t like it was back in March and April,’ Professor McConway said.
‘The level of cases [in the UK] remains a very long way below what it was at the peak of the pandemic here in March and April.’
However, Mr Hancock said it was currently more frequent in ‘affluent areas’, after various health chiefs have noted spread is predominantly happening when people socially mix in other people’s homes.
As Government data has shown a rising number of cases in recent weeks, scientists have suggested it comes down to more testing in England’s hardest hit locations, particularly in the north-west.
The vast majority of new cases were missed at the height of the UK outbreak because testing was limited to hospitals, whereas now anyone is able to get a test.
However now, data suggests of those people being tested, a higher proportion are getting a positive result – called the test positivity rate.
Asked whether the record numbers of cases were due to testing, Mr Hancock said: ‘There is a degree of that.
‘But we also check what we call the test positivity – so both the number of cases we find, but also the proportion of people who test positive. That is going up as well.’
It comes after Professor Gabriel Scally, a former NHS regional director of public health for the south-west, said the government had ‘lost control of the virus’.
He told The Guardian: ‘They’ve lost control of the virus. It’s no longer small outbreaks they can stamp on.
‘It’s become endemic in our poorest communities and this is the result. It’s extraordinarily worrying when schools are opening and universities are going to be going back.’
And Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said he feared the outbreak was a ‘return to exponential growth’, and if so ‘we can expect further increases over coming weeks.’
He said yesterday: ‘Today’s reported number of cases is the largest new cases reported in a single day since May. This is especially concerning for a Sunday when report numbers are generally lower than most other days of the week.
‘Some of that increase may be because of catch up from delayed tests over the past few days due to the widely reported difficulties the UK testing service has faced dealing with the number of tests being requested.
‘Nevertheless this represents a marked increase in the seven-day rolling average of 1,812 case per day compared to 1,244 a week ago and 1,040 a week before that.’
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, Labour’s shadow health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said yesterday’s caseload was ‘deeply concerning’ and ‘deeply worrying’.
He said: ‘It’s one days’ worth of data so we will have to see what the trend is. But that days’ worth of data is alarming, there is no question about it. It does suggest there is an increase in the virus.’
Mr Ashworth has called on Mr Hancock to go to parliament today to explain the testing ‘fiasco’ that has emerged in recent days.
People with coronavirus symptoms who try to book a test online have reported being told to drive three hours to reach their ‘nearest’ centre.
And some of them have had to drive past closer testing centres on their way to the farther ones because of a flaw in the Government’s booking system.
Test and trace boss Dido Harding installed a 75-mile limit on travelling to appointments on Friday after it was revealed some patients were being asked to drive almost 300 miles.
It’s been suggested fixing this flaw is the reason behind the surge in cases, as more people are now being told they can access a test nearby.
Mr Ashworth said: ‘I think the key ask of the government is, what is happening with testing?
‘Because we’ve had all these stories in recent days of people trying to book a test, people who are ill, they are sick, they think they’ve got symptoms of Covid, and they’ve been told to travel miles and miles, sometimes over 100 miles to get to a testing centre. That is clearly unacceptable.
‘So we are asking the Government, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, to come to the commons quickly. Tell us what they think is happening with the infection rate today, and tell us what he is going to do to fix the fiasco in testing in recent days.’
The surge in cases has not been evident in hospitalisations or deaths in the UK, as is the case in some other countries.
On May 23, the last time daily new cases were as high as they are now, 220 people died from Covid-19. But yesterday’s death toll was significantly smaller. A further two people died after testing positive for the bug in the 28 days prior.
Professor Hunter said: ‘Fortunately, the daily reported numbers of deaths due to Covid-19 remain very low with a seven day rolling average of just seven deaths per day.
‘However, with the new approach to recording deaths it is difficult to be confident that there are timely statistics. It with be another two or even more weeks before we can really expect to see any impact on mortality figures.’
Other data suggests Britain’s coronavirus crisis is not getting worse, with the Office for National Statistics reassuring on Friday that the number of people catching coronavirus in England per day remains stable.
Surveillance swabbing suggests 2,000 per day are getting – down 200 from the previous Friday, when the prediction sat at 2,200.
Some 27,100 people in England are thought to be infected at any one time – 0.05 per cent of the population or one in every 2,000 people. This total is a decrease of four per cent from the 28,200 estimate last week.
Statisticians at ONS said: ‘Evidence suggests that the incidence rate for England remains unchanged.’
Mr Hancock said the ONS figures prove the NHS Test and Trace system is working, despite it being constantly criticised for failing to reach targets. The scheme tracks down close contacts of Covid-19 cases and tells them to self isolate in order to stop transmission.
He said: ‘Today’s ONS data shows NHS Test and Trace and our local restrictions approach, in partnership with local areas, is working to contain the virus and is supporting the country to safely return to normal.’
Meanwhile, Government experts said Friday they think the UK’s growth rate – how the number of new cases is changing day-by-day – is between -1% and +2%.
Like the R rate, the growth rate is a tool to keep track of the virus. If it is greater than zero, and therefore positive, then the disease will grow, and if the growth rate is less than zero, then the disease will shrink.
The value is shown as a range. Because it is +2%, it suggests that a small increasing rate of cases is slightly more likely than a slow fall.
Last week’s growth rate interval was from -2% to +1% per day, so the interval has moved up by a small amount in the direction of increasing cases, rather than decreasing. But the estimates have a high degree of uncertainty.