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Coronavirus pandemic at critical point, warns UK Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty

The British government's chief medical officer Chris Whitty speaking at a Downing Street briefing to explain how the coronavirus is spreading in the UK and the potential scenarios that could unfold as winter approaches. Picture by PA Video/PA Wire 
Gavin Cordon and Jane Kirby, PA

The UK could be facing 50,000 new Covid-19 cases a day by mid-October, leading to 200 deaths a day a month later if the current rate of infection is not halted, the Government's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance has warned.

Sir Patrick said the "vast majority of the population remain susceptible" to catching coronavirus and the current situation required swift action to bring the case numbers down.

In a televised press conference together with England's chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, Sir Patrick said there was "no doubt" the UK was in a situation where the numbers were increasing among all age groups.

He said: "At the moment, we think that the epidemic is doubling roughly every seven days."

Prof Whitty said there was a need to "break unnecessary links" between households and there was a need to "change course".

Professor Whitty, the chief medical officer for England, laid the ground for tough new controls in an urgent attempt to halt the surge in infections.

He said the country faces a "very challenging winter", with the current trend heading in "the wrong direction".

British prime minister Boris Johnson spent the weekend with senior ministers and advisers discussing what action to take as the rise in the number of new cases showed no sign of slowing.

Mr Johnson is expected to hold a press conference as early as tomorrow.

Prof Whitty, who appeared alongside the British government's chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance, explained how the virus is spreading in the UK and the potential scenarios that could unfold as winter approaches.

They drew on data from other countries such as Spain and France, which are experiencing a second surge, to underline how their experience could be replicated in the UK.

Prof Whitty said: "The trend in the UK is heading in the wrong direction and we are at a critical point in the pandemic.

"We are looking at the data to see how to manage the spread of the virus ahead of a very challenging winter period."

The address came as influential Tory MP Sir Graham Brady signalled that ministers could face backbench resistance if they try to introduce new lockdown measures without proper scrutiny in parliament.

He said ministers had "got into the habit of ruling by decree", adding: "The British people are not used to being treated like children."

He is tabling an amendment that would require the British government to put any new measures before a vote of MPs.

Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said the British government's actions were dictated by the need to act quickly.

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "We're in a situation we've not seen literally since the war where we've had to act at incredible pace.

"Of course it's right to look at the balance here but the need for speed, as we're going to hear later today from the scientific and medical experts, does mean that these are exceptional times.

"I'm a Member of Parliament as well as a minister so I don't disagree about Parliament's role in all of this.

"But I do just stress that the exceptional circumstance have meant we've needed to move at unbelievable pace and that hasn't always meant that we could come to Parliament first when you're dealing with something like the coronavirus."

Mr Shapps said the prime minister will set out the next steps in tackling the pandemic today.

When asked earlier why Mr Johnson was not going to be part of Prof Whitty's public address, Mr Shapps said: "What he wants to do, quite rightly, is allow without politicians there, to allow scientists to set out the picture to the country.

"He will come out very soon after that and speak to the country."

Ministers are reported to be split on how far any new restrictions should go, with Chancellor Rishi Sunak said to be resisting controls which could further damage the economy.

Mr Shapps denied there had been a row in the Cabinet, but said: "A debate is quite proper, that's exactly what you would expect."

During a series of broadcast interviews over the weekend, Health Secretary Matt Hancock refused to rule out a second national lockdown in England, if people fail to follow the social distancing rules.

He said he feared cases could go "shooting through the roof" with more hospitalisations and more deaths.

Meanwhile London mayor Sadiq Khan is to meet council leaders in the city today to discuss possible new restrictions in the capital, which they would then put to ministers.

"The situation is clearly worsening," a spokesman for the mayor said.

"The mayor wants fast action as we cannot risk a delay, as happened in March. It is better for both health and business to move too early than too late."

Another 3,899 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK were announced on Sunday, while a further 18 people died within 28 days of testing positive, bringing the UK total to 41,777.

The latest figures came after the British government announced anyone in England refusing to obey an order to self-isolate could face a fine of up to £10,000 and just days after the "rule of six" - banning social gathering of more than six people - came into force.

Mr Johnson has been desperate to avoid another nationwide lockdown amid concerns about the economic damage it will inflict just as activity was beginning to pick up again.

However, as of Tuesday, about 13.5 million people across the UK will be facing some form of local restrictions, including 10pm curfews for pubs and restaurants, as the authorities grapple with the disease.

Among the measures being considered by ministers is a temporary two-week "circuit break", with tighter restrictions across England in an attempt to break the chain of transmission.

Sir Keir Starmer said Labour would support any new measures but warned that a second national lockdown was becoming more likely because the Test and Trace programme was in a state of "near collapse".

Professor Paul Hunter, an expert in health protection at the University of East Anglia, suggested a "circuit break" might only halt the Covid-19 surge temporarily.

He called for an end to mixed messages from ministers, telling BBC Radio 4's Today programme on Monday: "We've certainly seen a lot of confusion and a lot of mixed messages over the past few months and examples of people in authority who don't feel that they need to follow the rules themselves."

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