The number of coronavirus patients in UK hospitals could pass the spring peak by the end of November without further lockdown measures, a leading government scientific adviser has warned.
Sir Mark Walport, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said it was “not unrealistic” that there would be 25,000 people in hospital with Covid by the end of next month – higher than the April peak.
Walport compared the UK’s situation with France, where he said 16,000 Covid patients were in hospital including 2,500 people in intensive care – roughly half of its capacity – compared with 852 in intensive care in the UK. The picture was similar in Spain, he said, in spite of these countries implementing similar restrictions to the UK.
He added: “With our current measures which are similar but with variations in different parts of Europe there’s good evidence that there isn’t as much social distancing as there was when we clamped down in the first wave. And so we know that the risk is significant that cases will continue to grow.”
It came as the number of people killed by coronavirus in the UK passed 60,000 and the number of daily deaths hit 200 a day, weeks earlier than feared by the government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance.
Walport, England’s former chief scientific adviser, confirmed that ministers were being shown “very similar” numbers which suggest that hospital admissions will more than double from the current level of 9,199 within a month on the current trajectory.
“It’s the job of the chief scientific adviser to provide the evidence to the government and the numbers speak for themselves,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
There were just under 20,000 Covid patients in UK hospitals during the first peak in early April. However, this figure is thought to be an overestimate because of the way that patients were counted.
Walport was asked why the UK had already reached 200 Covid deaths a day, a projection that Valance said in September was expected to be hit by mid-November without further lockdown restrictions.
He said: “The numbers that are being given are not predictions, they’re projections. In other words, you can project under different circumstances for how the numbers will change and it’s for government to work out what measures to put in place so that hopefully those … projections are not met. That’s the critical issue.”
Although the number of coronavirus cases were “rising very significantly” – reaching a seven-day average of more than 22,000 this week – Walport said he hoped the death rate would be lower than it was during the first wave due to medical advances in treating Covid.
He added: “The numbers of deaths are rising, we can see from other countries. And it is for the government as policymakers to decide how to manage the extent to which, for example, it’s important to keep children in school but that does mean that there’s some increased transmission as a consequence.
“They have to balance the need to isolate people as much as possible and particularly the issue of if you have symptoms, you must isolate yourself. That’s absolutely critical. It’s how we behave as individuals as well that matters.”
George Eustice, the environment secretary, said the government had “struck the right balance” between protecting people’s health and the economic consequences of another full lockdown.
“We think we’ve struck the right balance on this but it isn’t an easy situation and no one pretends it is,” he told Sky News.
He ruled out an imminent nationwide lockdown, like the short-term circuit breaker proposed by Sage last month and backed by Labour, telling the BBC’s Today programme: “I think our view at the moment is there’s no point having a lockdown in those parts of the country where the incidence of the disease is very low.
“My part of the world, down in Cornwall, very low levels of the incidence of disease – it would make no sense to lock down the economy in those areas. But what we have done is introduced some very tough restrictions in those cities that have got a particular problem.”