The UK has recorded another 235 hospital deaths from COVID-19 today, taking the official total to at least 35,576.
NHS England said 166 people had died in its hospitals, between the ages of 33 and 99, while 50 more victims were confirmed in Scotland, 14 in Wales and five in Northern Ireland.
The Department of Health is expected to announce an all-UK figure including care home deaths later this afternoon.
It comes as Public Health England testing data from yesterday shows that not a single case of COVID-19 have yet been diagnosed in London or the South East from swabs taken on Monday, May 18.
The regions are the two most populated in the country and are home to a combined 18million people – almost a third of the British population.
Officials have played down the numbers, suggesting that they may be the result of a technical hitch known to have happened over the weekend, and explaining that they will rise in the coming days as more results come back. The number should not be interpreted to mean the epidemic is tailing off, they said.
The numbers also showed that only 79 cases were diagnosed across the whole of England – this, too, will inevitably rise in the coming days as more people who were swabbed on Monday test positive. A total of 2,412 people yesterday received positive results from samples taken between May 13 and 18.
But the hopeful figure comes as the number of people catching the virus in Britain is believed to be falling rapidly. Research by the University of Cambridge and Public Health England last week suggested that only 24 people each day are catching COVID-19 in London.
In other coronavirus news:
- The government may be planning to row back on plans to reopen schools on June 1, with some councils refusing to bow to pressure from Whitehall and Justice Minister Robert Buckland said this morning that ‘uniform’ reopening across the nationwide is not expected;
- Superdrug has started selling a DIY antibody test for £69 so people can test to find out whether they have had COVID-19 in the past;
- Prime Minister Boris Johnson has revealed that at least 312 staff in the NHS and care homes are known to have died with COVID-19, many of whom were people from other countries;
- More evidence is emerging of economic carnage as public debt is now higher than £2trillion, 7.41million people are off work, the average number of hours being worked has plummeted and the Institue for Fiscal Studies said the UK is heading for a ‘mega-recession’;
- A member of the specialist government advisory group NERVTAG said the UK does not necessarily need to stick to the 2m (6’6″) social distancing rule, and other countries in Europe are using 1m (3ft);
- Boris Johnson has promised the ‘test, track and trace’ system will be operational by June 1, in the shadow of an unsuccessful mid-May start date.
Public Health England data has so far found only 79 new coronavirus cases out of specimens provided on May 18. This number will increase in future as more people receive their results
NHS England today said that the newly-announced deaths happened in its hospitals between March 24 and yesterday, May 19, and that five of them had been otherwise healthy before catching the coronavirus.
Most of the fatalities happened in the Midlands (42), followed by North East & Yorkshire (37), East of England (32), North West (21), South East (17), London (13) and South West (4).
It calculated that the crucial ‘R’ reproduction rate – the average number of people an infected patient passes the virus on to – has fallen to just 0.4 in the capital, with the number of new cases halving every 3.5 days.
TWO METRE SOCIAL DISTANCING RULE ‘BASED ON FRAGILE EVIDENCE’
One of the top scientific advisers to the British Government said the two metre (6’6″) social distancing rule is based on ‘very fragile’ evidence.
People in the UK have been urged to stay at least 2m, or six-and-a-half feet, away from anyone who they don’t live with, to avoid catching or spreading COVID-19.
But the distance may be a non-scientific estimate that just caught on in countries around the world, as top researchers say there is not solid evidence to back it up.
Professor Robert Dingwall, a sociologist at Nottingham Trent University and a member of government advisory group NERVTAG (New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group) made the comments this morning.
He said that the World Health Organization and other countries in Europe had reduced this distance to one metre but the UK is persisting with the full 2m.
Professor Dingwall said on BBC Radio 4 today: ‘The World Health Organization recommends a one metre distance, Denmark has adopted it since the beginning of last week.
‘If you probe around the recommendations of distance in Europe you will find that a lot of countries have also gone for this really on the basis of a better understanding of the scientific evidence around the possible transmission of infection.’
Iain Duncan-Smith, a former Conservative Party Cabinet minister has also called for the rule to be relaxed, saying it will be impossible to maintain in pubs and restaurants.
The Cambridge team estimated that 1.8million people in London (20 per cent) have already had coronavirus.
They claimed between 10 and 53 people in the capital caught the virus on May 10, the day Boris Johnson announced a slight relaxation of some lockdown rules.
At the peak of the capital’s crisis – calculated to be the same day lockdown was announced – 213,000 are thought to have caught the infection.
Meanwhile, the team’s modelling shows only one death occurs in every 160 cases, suggesting at the current rate, London’s daily death toll will drop to a consistent level of zero in three weeks.
At the start of the outbreak London was the worst affected part of the UK but the latest numbers suggest it is now ahead of every other area in terms of recovery and it could see all new cases eliminated by June. In contrast, the North East of England is recording 4,000 daily infections and has an R rate of 0.8, twice that of the capital.
One epidemiologist argued it is ‘extremely unlikely’ the number of new cases in London is as low as 24.
The data – provided to a sub-committee of the Government’s SAGE panel of experts – sparked hopes that the easing of strict measures could be accelerated.
Today’s statistics come after separate data from the Office for National Statistics, National Records Scotland and NISRA, the Northern Irish statistical agency, suggested yesterday that at least 44,000 people had died by the middle of last week.
That number includes everyone who had COVID-19 or ‘novel coronavirus’ mentioned on their death certificate, whether they got tested for it or not. The Department of Health only counts people who test positive.
Britain’s status as the worst-hit country in Europe is underlined by the figures, with Italy so far recording 32,000 deaths, by comparison. Only the US has recorded more deaths, with 92,000 victims.
ONS data, which only covers England and Wales, confirmed 39,071 people had died with the coronavirus in all settings by May 8. The figures include patients whose death was suspected to be from COVID-19, as well as those whose were confirmed.
At least 1,211 further people were known to have died in English hospitals between May 9 and May 17, according to the NHS, taking the England and Wales total to 40,282.
In addition, National Records of Scotland – the equivalent of the ONS north of the border – counted 3,213 deaths by May 10, and Northern Ireland’s Statistics Agency, NISRA, added 599 up to May 13.
This took the total for the UK to at least 44,094. But the actual number, taking into account more recent counts from Scotland and Northern Ireland, will be even higher.
The ONS revealed that excess deaths – the number of people who have died above the average amount expected for this time of year – has now almost hit 55,000. That figure includes direct and indirect victims of COVID-19, such as people who may have missed medical treatment because hospitals were overloaded.