Ministers are ready to order a “harder” London-specific clampdown soon on socialising to limit deaths from a looming surge in coronavirus cases.
Plans are being drawn up for regional responses to a spiralling Covid-19 epidemic which is already starting in the capital amid fears that hospitals will struggle to cope.
An urgent review of whether to close schools is being carried out. So far the advice has been to avoid such a move, but if it were to happen it is most likely to be imposed in London first.
Italian and French-style lockdowns have also not been ruled out but the Government has so far shied away from taking such draconian, economy-crippling steps.
The outbreak in the UK is now heavily concentrated in London. As of yesterday, 480 out of 1,543 confirmed cases were in the capital, with a further 173 in the South East.
England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam stressed every citizen in the UK should follow advice on social distancing and self-isolation, not only to protect themselves but to avoid other people being killed by Covid-19. After news footage last night of pub-goers saying they would ignore the guidance, Professor Van-Tam stressed: “We are giving very strong advice to all citizens ... it applies to everybody.”
He said the advisory restrictions — the most stringent in peacetime, modern day Britain — could go on for “months”, with warnings that it could be a year to 18 months before a vaccine is developed.
Amid criticism that the Government has been too slow to act, he insisted it had “taken the right step at the right time”, but that now the number of cases was set to “escalate rapidly”.
He added: “We will take about one to two weeks to understand what these measures are doing, to begin to slow the rates of infections in the UK.
“We will keep that under really close scrutiny and we have always said that we are prepared to do things harder, we are prepared to do more things if necessary to slow this epidemic down.”
Boris Johnson ordered the dramatic ramping up of restrictions last night after scientists warned that a failure to do so could risk 250,000 deaths, with the NHS intensive care capacity being overwhelmed eight-fold.
However, concerns still remain over how the NHS will cope even with these new measures.
Asked if London’s hospitals currently have enough ventilators to cope with expected surge in cases, Mayor Sadiq Khan said: “The short answer is no, that’s one of the reasons why the Government strategy was contain and delay to get us as near as possible to spring and summer to free up capacity in the NHS.”
He added that advice on school closures could change.
In a sign of the huge pressure on health services, the London Ambulance Service had its busiest day ever yesterday. LAS chief executive Garrett Emmerson said: “We are seeing unprecedented demand for both our 999 and 111 services at the moment. Yesterday was the busiest day ever for our 999 service with nearly 8,000 calls. Unfortunately, the huge volumes of 111 calls we are receiving from people who could potentially use the website nhs.uk/coronavirus means that more vulnerable Londoners who may not have the ability to access the internet, for instance older people, are struggling to get through.”
Professor Van-Tam stressed that the advice for whole households to self-isolate even if only one person has Covid-19 symptoms, of a new, continuous cough or high temperature, was “incredibly important” to drive down the epidemic’s curve.
The four key elements of social distancing are: reduce non-essential contact with other people outside of the family; reduce non-essential travel to an “absolute minimum”; keep away from bars, pubs, restaurants, cinemas, theatres and “all the places where human beings gather and where contacts can take place”; and to the extent possible, work from home. People over 70 are being even more strongly advised to take social distancing measures and Professor Van-Tam said new stricter advice for the “extremely vulnerable”, such as those with severe underlying health conditions, will be coming soon.
The UK had no choice but to change tactics in the face of a growing coronavirus crisis, work by the Imperial College Covid-19 Response Team showed.Slowing down the spread of the virus, the aim until now, could have led to about 250,000 deaths in the UK and a health system so overwhelmed it could not cope.
A research paper by the team said the “surge limits” for both general ward and intensive care beds would be exceeded by at least eight-fold.
“In addition, even if all patients were able to be treated, we predict there would still be in the order of 250,000 deaths in GB, and 1.1-1.2 million in the US,” it said.
The scientists also predicted that transmission would quickly rebound if interventions were relaxed.
Professor Neil Ferguson, one of the lead authors on the study, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that information gathered in recent weeks showed it had “become increasingly clear” that predicted deaths were not the worst-case scenario, they were the “most likely”. The measures announced in previous weeks by the Government are still important, but we need to go “much further” in suppressing the virus, he said.
He said scientists had “struggled to see if there was a different way of managing this epidemic” in a way that was acceptable not just in terms of death but in terms of social disruption, but had concluded that suppression was necessary.