Coronavirus is “running riot” across all age groups, a government scientific adviser has said ahead of an expected announcement by the prime minister that England will go into lockdown next week.
Boris Johnson is expected to impose stringent new national lockdown restrictions after scientists on the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) told him Covid-19 was spreading significantly faster than their worst-case scenarios and could kill 85,000 people this winter.
The Times reported that Johnson was expected to announce the measures for England – which could be introduced on Wednesday and last until 1 December – at a press conference on Monday.
Everything except essential shops and education settings could be closed. Johnson and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, were to spend the weekend trying to work out what restrictions could be imposed without causing major damage to the economy.
Speaking in a personal capacity on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, Prof Calum Semple, a member of Sage, said: “For the naysayers that don’t believe in a second wave, there is a second wave. And unlike the first wave, where we had a national lockdown which protected huge swathes of society, this outbreak is now running riot across all age groups.”
He said there were “many more cases, particularly in younger females between the ages of 20 and 40”, with three to four times as many women in that age group going to hospital as men, because they were being exposed to the virus in hospitality, retail and some educational settings.
A two-week “circuit breaker” lockdown, as recommended by Sage and the Labour party, was previously rejected by ministers. It is now thought something longer will be needed.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) infection survey found cases “continued to rise steeply” in the week ending 23 October, with an estimated 568,100 people in households becoming infected.
Scientific advisers at the top of government believe it is now too late for a two-week lockdown to have enough of an effect, and a longer one is needed to drive the reproduction number, or R value, of the virus below one.
The advisers believe all parts of England are on course to eventually end up in tier 3 restrictions, and deaths could potentially hit 500 a day within weeks.
Government scientists are also confident that more than 50,000 new cases of coronavirus are now occurring every day in England.
Official documents released by the government showed that a Sage meeting on 8 October said the number of infections and hospital admissions was “exceeding the reasonable worst case scenario planning levels at this time”.
The meeting, held just days before three-tier restrictions were announced, said the number of deaths was also “highly likely to exceed reasonable worst case planning levels” within the next two weeks.
Prof Jeremy Farrar, an infectious diseases expert and Sage member, said on Friday that “we have to act now” to bring coronavirus under control.
He tweeted: “The best time to act was a month ago but these are very tough decisions which we would all like to avoid. The second-best time is now.
“The sooner we get on top of the disease, reduce transmission, R1, the sooner we can get our society back to normal and the economy back on track.”
John Apter, the chairman of the Police Federation of England and Wales, called for “clear communication” over a possible national lockdown. He criticised the “briefing” of coronavirus measures to the media, saying it increased pressure on the emergency services by encouraging some people “to make the most of their pre-lockdown time”. The reports that a national lockdown was planned first appeared in the Times and the Daily Mail.
To those briefing selective media on a potential national lockdown please understand the impact this has. It creates a media frenzy, causes confusion and ahead of any official announcement encourages some to make the most of their pre lockdown time. This is not a good mix!
Lucy Powell, the shadow business minister, told BBC Breakfast that the government’s “dithering” meant it had missed the opportunity to lockdown over half term and have the most impact. “It sounds like it is going to have to be longer than it would have had to have been because we are doing it too late.”
France and Germany announced national lockdowns earlier this week, while in Northern Ireland pubs and restaurants were closed, except for takeaways and deliveries, for four weeks starting on 16 October. Schools were closed for two weeks.
Wales is currently under a “firebreak” lockdown with leisure, hospitality and tourism businesses closed, and in Scotland the majority of people will be under level 3 of a new five-level system from Monday.