Boris Johnson is considering imposing stringent new national lockdown restrictions within days after scientists warned that half a million people were being infected with coronavirus each week.
The Prime Minister is expected to announce the measures for England – which could be introduced on Wednesday and last until December 1 – at a press conference on Monday, according to The Times.
Everything except essential shops and education settings could be closed under the new measures, the paper said, but no final decisions are believed to have been made. Tougher regional measures are also being considered.
Mr Johnson has so far resisted pressure from scientists and Labour to introduce a “circuit-breaker” to curb Covid-19 cases, but he is facing fresh calls after new data showed the extent of cases across England.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) infection survey found cases “continued to rise steeply” in the week ending October 23, with an estimated 568,100 people in households becoming infected.
Scientific advisers at the top of Government believe it is now too late for a two-week national circuit-breaker to have enough of an effect and a longer national lockdown is needed to drive the reproduction number, or R value, of the virus below one.
All parts of England are on course to eventually end up in Tier 3 restrictions, they believe, while deaths could potentially hit 500 per day within weeks.
Government scientists are also confident that more than 50,000 new cases of coronavirus are now occurring every day in England.
A senior Government scientific adviser said: ”It’s definitely too late to think that the two week circuit-breaker on it own will sort this out. It would bring it down a bit but it wouldn’t be enough to bring (the R value) right down. A two week circuit-breaker would have an effect but now almost certainly it would need to go on for longer to have a significant effect.”
They said the R needs to be brought below one in many places to “get it down to levels that don’t run the risk of breaching health service capacity” while in other regions the growth needs to flatten for that to happen.
They said the “longer you leave it the more difficult it is to turn this around.”
It comes as official documents released by the Government showed that a Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) meeting on October 8 said the number of infections and hospital admissions is “exceeding the reasonable worst case scenario planning levels at this time”.
The document, which came just days before three tier restrictions were announced, said the number of deaths was also “highly likely to exceed reasonable worst case planning levels” within the next two weeks.
Professor Jeremy Farrar, an infectious diseases expert and Sage member, said on Friday evening that to bring coronavirus under control “we have to act now”.
He tweeted: “The best time to act was a month ago but these are very tough decisions which we would all like to avoid. The second-best time is now.
“The sooner we get on top of the disease, reduce transmission, R<1, the sooner we can get our society back to normal and the economy back on track.”
France and Germany announced national lockdown restrictions earlier this week, while in Northern Ireland pubs and restaurants were closed for four weeks starting on October 16 with the exception of takeaways and deliveries. Schools were closed for two weeks.
Wales is currently under a “firebreak” lockdown with leisure, hospitality and tourism businesses closed, and in Scotland the majority of people will be under Level 3 of a new five-tier system from Monday.
In other developments:
– A further 274 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Friday, the Government said, while a further 24,405 lab-confirmed cases were recorded in the UK.
– More than a dozen regions in England will move into Tier 2 restrictions on Saturday, including Carlisle, after an announcement was made on Friday evening.
– The other areas are: the East Riding of Yorkshire, Kingston-Upon-Hull, North East Lincolnshire, North Lincolnshire, Dudley, Staffordshire, Telford, the Wrekin, Amber Valley, Bolsover, Derbyshire Dales, Derby City, South Derbyshire, the whole of High Peak, Charnwood, Luton and Oxford.
– Boris Johnson’s promise to increase the UK’s Covid-19 testing capacity to 500,000 per day by the end of October looked set to be met, as the latest capacity figures stood at 480,000.
– The UK Government is expected to hold a discussion on a “common approach to Christmas” across the UK, Wales’s First Minister Mark Drakeford said.