Around 55,000 people in the UK have coronavirus and the aim is for fewer than 20,000 people to die from it, the Government’s chief scientific adviser has said.
Sir Patrick Vallance said the number of deaths was “horrible” and there would still be a huge amount of strain on the health service from Covid-19.
It comes as Prime Minister Boris Johnson told his Cabinet the coronavirus pandemic is a “war” that must be won as he set out plans for a team to tackle the outbreak and economic chaos.
During a hearing of the Health Select Committee, chairman Jeremy Hunt asked Sir Patrick whether the expected death rate was one fatality for every 1,000 cases, which would mean that there are “potentially 55,000 cases” at present.
Sir Patrick said: “We’ve tried to get a handle on that in Sage (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies) and if you put all the modelling information together, that’s a reasonable ballpark way of looking at it.
“It’s not more accurate than that.”
He said the stringent measures introduced on Monday should “have a very significant effect on the peak” and lead to a reduction in cases and deaths after two to three weeks.
Asked whether it was hoped that deaths could potentially get below 20,000, Sir Patrick said: “That is the hope that we can get it down to that. To put that into perspective, every year in seasonal flu the number of deaths is thought to be 8,000.
“If we can get numbers down to 20,000 and below, that’s a good outcome in terms of where we would hope to get to with this outbreak.
“But that’s still horrible, it’s still an enormous number of deaths and an enormous pressure on the health service, and having spent 20 years as an NHS consultant as well as an academic, I know what that looks and feels like.”
He warned that much was still unknown about what would happen once people are released from isolation and no longer told to undertake social distancing.
Sir Patrick said “that’s one of the big unknowns in this which we are going to have to think about very carefully”.
He refused to be drawn on suggestions that the Government’s measures could have to be kept in place for 18 months to prevent the virus resurging.
“When we get to the stage where we know we can keep it below the NHS capacity, and when we are happy that can really be maintained properly, that is the time to start talking about how you might release it,” he told the committee.
“I don’t know how long these measures are going to be needed for. It is certainly not a couple of weeks. It is going to be months, I don’t know how many months.”
He warned that some measures may be lifted, only to have to be re-imposed if the disease made a return.
“One thing is for sure – we haven’t got immunity to this virus and therefore as we back off it may come back again, and we are going to have to manage that very carefully,” he said.
It comes as:
– The Queen is to move to Windsor Castle on Thursday and is likely to stay there beyond the Easter period
– A second patient in Scotland diagnosed with Covid-19 has died
– The Archbishop of Canterbury has announced that public worship is “suspended until further notice”, but weddings and funerals can still go ahead
– The Foreign Office is advising against all non-essential foreign travel for an initial period of 30 days
– The number of people to test positive for coronavirus in the UK as of 9am on Tuesday is 1,950, up from 1,543 on Monday, the Department of Health said
– Boris Johnson will chair a daily “C-19 meeting” with key ministers and officials tasked with tackling the coronavirus outbreak, Downing Street said
– Routine Ofsted inspections have been cancelled
– Fashion chain Laura Ashley filed for administration after rescue talks were halted by the coronavirus outbreak. Major cinema chains, museums and galleries closed their doors.
– The Airport Operators Association warned UK airports may shut down “within weeks without Government intervention”.
The Prime Minister unveiled a new ministerial structure on Tuesday tasked with convening at daily “C-19 meetings” to refine measures set out at the Cobra emergency committee.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Michael Gove and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab will each have key roles.
On Tuesday, Mr Johnson told his Cabinet: “We are engaged in a war against the disease which we have to win.”
He stressed that ministers must rise to the challenge of supporting businesses through the “hugely challenging times”, according to Downing Street.
Mr Johnson gave the warning after the public was told to avoid all non-essential contact and travel, while the elderly and those with underlying conditions were told they would have to stay home much more.
Speaking to the committee of MPs, Sir Patrick said closing schools remained an option that was on the table to curb the spread of coronavirus.
But it would also cause an “enormous problem” for the workforce, including workers in the NHS, he said.
Sir Patrick Vallance agreed there needed to be a “big increase” in the amount of testing that is done for the virus, adding: “Everyone is working hard to try and make that happen.”
Earlier, scientists advising the Government said the UK had “no time to lose” in changing tactics on Monday in order to prevent thousands of deaths and the NHS being overwhelmed.
The Imperial College Covid-19 response team – one of several scientific teams advising ministers – published a paper showing that 250,000 people could die if efforts were focused only on delaying and slowing down the spread of Covid-19.
The paper analysed the most up-to-date data from Italy and the UK and concluded that the only “viable strategy” was a Chinese-style policy of “suppression” of the virus.
Sir Patrick Vallance said it was a “semantic difference” to argue whether the UK had shifted from a process of delaying and mitigating the spread of Covid-19 to an attempt to suppress it.
He told MPs the approach had always been to “save lives and protect the vulnerable” by delaying and suppressing the peak of the outbreak, and shielding those most likely to be badly hit.