The UK has reached the peak of the coronavirus epidemic, cabinet ministers have confirmed, despite warnings that the disease may still be rampant in care homes.
Dominic Raab, who is deputising for the prime minister, and Matt Hancock, the health secretary, both said the UK was now “at the peak” of the outbreak
While updating MPs in the Commons on the government’s strategy for testing the disease, Hancock said social distancing was working, adding: “It is making a difference. We are at the peak.”
His comment appeared to substantiate claims made several days ago by England’s chief medical officer, Prof Chris Whitty, who said the country was “probably reaching the peak overall”.
However, Hancock said relaxing lockdown restrictions was not imminent as tests needed to be scaled up, including a consistent fall in the daily death rate.
Hancock’s comments were echoed by Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, who said she was increasingly optimistic Scotland had passed the peak in cases after “really encouraging” data showed a continuing fall in hospital admissions and intensive care cases.
Sturgeon warned, however, it was too early to start relaxing the strict lockdown and social isolation rules. “The progress is definitely there but it’s fragile at this stage, so any easing up that will very quickly send all of that into reverse,” she said.
Public Health England announced 665 new hospital deaths of people who tested positive for Covid-19.
The number of coronavirus deaths at UK hospitals stands at 17,000, though there are estimates the death toll is far higher – potentially at 41,000 - if non-hospital deaths are included. Italy is believed to be beyond its peak with the country’s death toll falling consistently for the past two weeks.
The number of intensive care patients in Scotland fell for the seventh day running to 155, the lowest figures since 1 April and down from 221 on 12 April. Covid-19 hospital admissions by ambulance fell to 156 on Tuesday, the lowest level since 18 March and down from a peak of 363 on 6 April.
“These figures for hospital admissions and admissions to intensive care are really encouraging and they’re cause for optimism – still cautious optimism – but optimism nevertheless,” Sturgeon said.
The UK health secretary has been increasingly under fire for the level of testing, which has fallen behind other European countries, and for a lack of personal protective equipment for NHS and care home staff.
Hancock said the expansion of testing capacity was ahead of schedule but demand had been “lower than expected”.
He said: “We are therefore ramping up the availability of this testing and expanding who is eligible for testing and making it easier to access the tests. The tests are conducted in NHS hospitals, through our drive-through centres, mobile units and home deliveries.”
Contact tracing will also be introduced at a “large scale”, he told the Commons, and an NHS app for tracing was in development. Public Health England has been criticised for not deploying pre-existing environmental health volunteers who have the expertise to help with the outbreak.
Defending the government’s strategy on procuring PPE, Hancock said it had focused on large and credible offers first but was engaging with 1,000 companies that buy stock from abroad as well as 159 UK-based manufacturers.
His statement came as Labour claimed dozens of companies offering PPE had been “ignored” by the government.
Labour says 36 British companies have approached it to say their offers to help frontline staff “have not received a reply”.
This includes Issa Exchange Ltd in Birmingham, which said it offered a quarter of a million aprons and masks, Network Medical Products in Ripon, which said it could provide 100,000 face visors a week, and CQM Learning, which says it can provide 8,000 face shields a day.
In a letter to Michael Gove, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, Rachel Reeves, said: “You and your officials and those at the Department for Health and Social Care will be best placed to validate what capability and capacity these firms have, but as they have not received a reply after contacting the government. I wanted to ensure that the Cabinet Office was aware of them.
“Of these firms, if just one, five or 10 were able to contribute to the national effort of ensuring that our NHS and care workers – and indeed anybody who needs to use some form of personal protective equipment and clothing – could be better protected, or just one hospital or care home were able to access adequate supplies of the PPE they need, I know you will agree that that would go a long way and make a big difference.”
Hancock told the Commons the government had coordinated the delivery of more than 1bn items of PPE so far.
“We have a rigorous system of verifying the offers we receive because not all offers have been credible and it’s important to focus on the biggest, most credible offers first,” he said.