UK at 'critical point' over Covid-19, top scientists to tell public

Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty to make TV appeal ahead of ‘challenging winter’

Britain’s most senior government scientists will make a direct appeal to the public on Monday, warning that the coronavirus trend is “heading in the wrong direction” and “a critical point has been reached”.

As Downing Street considers imposing nationwide curbs to contain a sharp jump in cases, the chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, will make a rare live televised address alongside the UK chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance.

The scientists will set out the latest data on the spread of the disease, and urge people to exercise caution. Whitty is expected to warn: “We are looking at the data to see how to manage the spread of the virus ahead of a very challenging winter period.”

Their intervention comes after ministers were accused of eroding trust, from failings and broken pledges on testing and tracing to scandals such as Dominic Cummings’ lockdown journeys.

London could become the latest area to be subject to regional restrictions, with the mayor, Sadiq Khan, meeting council leaders on Monday. A spokesperson for Khan said: “The situation is clearly worsening … it is better for both health and business to move too early than too late.”

With the disease on the rise across the UK and in all age groups, and with cases doubling each week, ministers hope the scientists’ broadcast will help hammer home the message that tough new restrictions will be unavoidable if the situation fails to improve.

Whitty and Vallance are likely to compare the UK with other European countries such as France and Spain, which have seen a sharp rise in cases translate – after a lag – into increasing hospitalisations and then deaths. The UK saw 3,899 new cases and 18 deaths on Sunday.

Matt Hancock, the health secretary, warned that Britain had reached a “tipping point” and did not rule out another national lockdown. In a series of blunt TV interviews, he said the public had a choice: comply with restrictions, including the “rule of six” limit on social gatherings, or see stricter measures imposed.

“We face a choice. If everybody follows the rules – and we’ll be increasingly stringent on the people who are not following the rules – then we can avoid further national lockdowns,” he told the BBC’s Marr on Sunday. “But we, of course, have to be prepared to take action if that is what is necessary. I don’t rule it out; I don’t want to see it.”

The Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, responding to Hancock’s remarks, urged the government to “stop shifting the blame and fix the problems” with the testing system. Penalties for those failing to self-isolate are being increased to a maximum of £10,000, with £500 lump sums given to the poorest who are told to self-isolate.

When Hancock was asked whether people should report their neighbours for failing to comply, he said: “Yes.” That message contrasted with Boris Johnson’s insistence that he would only do so if his neighbours were having “Animal House parties with hot tubs”.

Hancock also confirmed he was meeting Khan. One option understood to be under discussion is urging office workers to stay at home, but curbs on restaurant opening hours and new limits on social mixing appear more likely.

City Hall believed London was up to a fortnight behind northern towns and cities that have experienced a resurgence in the virus, but new analysis of Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) data on Friday suggested it may be just days behind.

More than 13 million people in northern England, the Midlands, Scotland and Wales are already facing some form of local lockdown, with a complex patchwork of separate restrictions covering different areas.

Ministers are increasingly of the view that this will not suffice – though government sources stress that any new shutdowns would be more “sophisticated” than March’s drastic “stay at home” order. “We know more about the disease now and how and where it spreads,” they said.

Some ministers, including the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, are reportedly more cautious about the potential economic damage that draconian restrictions could do. It is unlikely to be clear whether the rule of six has had an impact in reducing transmission for another week.

Fears in Whitehall about the virus growing unchecked have been exacerbated by shortcomings in the government’s testing system, which has struggled to cope with a surge in demand since children returned to school.

The National Education Union warned that keeping schools fully open may become unsustainable, particularly in hotspot areas, as a growing number of teachers and pupils self-isolate with Covid-like symptoms.

In an open letter to the prime minister, the NEU’s joint general secretaries, Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney, said: “We hope that you will be able to get this situation under control quickly but, if you cannot, then we believe that you will have to take steps to reduce wider school opening in these areas to help get R below 1.”

A Guardian analysis showed that the test-and-trace programme failed to reach half of contacts of infected people – nearly 15,000 residents – in coronavirus hotspots in the four weeks before schools reopened.

Only 55% of those in the worst-hit areas were reached by the outsourcing firms Serco and Sitel in the four weeks to 9 September. The figures show for the first time how the privately-run arm of test and trace has failed to significantly improve since August when ministers renewed the contracts of Serco and Sitel, who have been paid £200m between them.

“We have had concerns for some time about the ability of the national system to reach people in a timely and effective way,” said Bev Craig, the executive member for health for Manchester city council.

“For the last two weeks the national system has handed over the details of people who they haven’t been able to reach within 24 hours. Our local teams are seeing much higher success rates than their national counterparts.

“However, for this to continue it is vital that local authorities receive the necessary resources to fund this work, because resources are yet to be re-routed from the failing outsourced system nationally to local teams.”

The crisis has also deepened concerns among Tories about the quality of the ministers in the cabinet. One former minister said that what was needed now was “the A team”, but that this was not what Johnson had appointed.

“We have got a very inexperienced cabinet dealing with problems the like of which nobody has ever seen before,” he said.

“A lot of them are not up to much and none of them are fantastic, not any of them. When Johnson came in, they put the A team on the backbenches.”


Heather Stewart and Josh Halliday

The GuardianTramp

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