The coronavirus epidemic remains in a “dangerous phase” a senior Government scientist has warned as the UK recorded its highest daily death toll since the outbreak began.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock told the daily No 10 news conference that as of Thursday there had been 8,958 hospital deaths from the disease – an increase of 980 on the previous day.
As ministers and officials urged the public to stay at home over the Easter bank holiday weekend, the deputy chief scientific adviser, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, said it was “premature” to say the outbreak had reached its peak.
While he said there were signs the “curving is bending” in terms of hospital admissions, he said it was still too soon to start lifting the lockdown.
“We are in a dangerous phase still. And I need to reinforce that again to you, that this is not over,” he said.
“It’s premature to say we are at a peak and the push we are making with social distancing just has to continue.”
The NHS is a family and we feel their loss deeplyRuth May, chief nursing officer
His warning was echoed by chief nursing officer Ruth May who paid tribute to the NHS frontline staff who had died after becoming infected with the virus.
She said: “Of course nurses, healthcare assistants, midwives, and other NHS staff are now among the victims of this coronavirus. Some have lost their lives.
“The NHS is a family and we feel their loss deeply.”
The warnings came as Mr Hancock sought to reassure health and social care staff that efforts were being put in place to get the personal protective equipment (PPE) they needed.
He said the armed forces were part of a “Herculean” logistics effort to get the kit out to hospitals, surgeries and care homes where it was needed on an unprecedented scale.
And amid huge international demand for PPE – including gowns, face masks, gloves and visors – he urged British manufacturers to fill the gap and start producing the equipment needed in the UK.
In other developments:
– Downing Street said that Boris Johnson was able to take “short walks” between rests following his discharge from intensive care at St Thomas’ Hospital on Thursday.
– The Government announced plans for new NHS Nightingale hospitals in Sunderland and Exeter to treat coronavirus patients
– Ministers said tests for coronavirus had reached more than 19,000 a day – against the Government’s target of 100,000 by the end of the month.
With the Government due to carry out the first three-week review of the lockdown measures next week, ministers are under intense pressure to set out an exit strategy for lifting the restrictions.
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who is deputising for Mr Johnson, has said the Government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage) would be studying the evidence but they would not be able to say more until the end of the week.
However Mr Hancock said the health effects of the economic collapse resulting from the measures to curb the outbreak would be considered by ministers when making a decision on when to start easing the restrictions.
He said he was working with Chancellor Rishi Sunak on a piece of work to ensure they took into account “the entire impact on the health and well-being of everyone in the country, not just on the highly on the highly visible deaths from coronavirus”.
“It is something that will be at heart of our judgments as we make those decisions,” he said.
Earlier Professor Neil Ferguson of Imperial College, who was the lead author of a report which warned 250,000 people could die if the Government did not introduce social distancing, said the measures were working better than they had predicted.
“We made quite conservative assumptions about the level of contact reduction these measures would result in,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
“There is some preliminary evidence in terms of contact surveys, in terms of data from companies like Google about how people move, that we have seen even larger reductions in normal behaviour, contact, than we would have dared hope.”
Prof Ferguson, who is a member of Sage, suggested when the time came the restrictions could be eased in stages, but said more testing would be needed to ensure the virus was kept in check.
“Without doubt measures will be targeted, probably by age, by geography, and we will need to introduce, in my view, much larger levels of testing at a community level to really be able to isolate cases and more effectively identify where transmission has happened,” he said.
Prof Van-Tam, meanwhile, said the country may never eliminate the virus entirely and return to a state of “zero transmission” as was the case in December last year before the outbreak.
“We will likely go back to low levels of transmission and the virus will continue to be here in and around us in our communities, I suspect for a very long time, even if we can keep the levels right down,” he said.