Britain has announced another 616 coronavirus victims today, taking the total number of fatalities in the UK to 18,738.
Another 4,583 people have tested positive for the virus in the past 24 hours, meaning 138,078 have now been officially diagnosed. The number of positive tests has remained stable this week and appears to be plateauing.
NHS England confirmed a further 514 people have died with COVID-19 and another 102 deaths were announced across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Today’s figure marks a fall of 37 per cent from the worst day in Britain’s statistics, April 10, when 980 people were confirmed to have died – and is lower than the 759 recorded yesterday.
The Government had hoped to keep the number of victims to 20,000 or lower but recent trends suggest the UK will hit that by Sunday counting hospital deaths alone.
Chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance tonight said he expects COVID-19 deaths to ‘plateau’ for the next couple of weeks but will then come down ‘faster’ after that.
And data is increasingly showing huge numbers of people are dying in care homes but, in Britain, not being counted until a fortnight later. World Health Organization research has found half of all COVID-19 deaths are happening in nursing homes, signalling the UK’s death toll is set to surge when backdated data catches up.
Britain’s update comes as rifts are emerging in Government over how the UK will start to move out of its lockdown state when the coronavirus infection rate falls.
Conservative MPs have warned the Government it must trust the public and spell out how and when the nationwide shutdown will start to ease off.
Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who gives her daily briefings hours before Downing Street, today said she does not expect normality would return this year.
She indicated she was willing to ease restrictions without Whitehall’s approval but said vulnerable people would continue to be shielded and large gatherings of people would not be allowed ‘for some months to come’.
Testing will be key to moving forward from the epidemic, experts say, and the Department of Health today at last announced it will start ongoing population testing as well as backward-looking antibody tests, known as ‘have you had it’ tests.
However, with only a week to go until it must hit its 100,000-a-day target, Matt Hancock’s Department still has yet to manage more than 24,000 in a day.
NHS England today announced that the 514 patients who had died in its hospitals were aged between 31 and 100 years old.
Sixteen of them, the youngest of whom was 37, had no other health problems before they caught the coronavirus.
The biggest proportion of the deaths announced today – 216 of them – happened on Tuesday, April 21, while 111 happened yesterday and 75 on Monday.
April 8 remains the deadliest day of the outbreak so far and is believed to have been the peak. NHS England now says 831 people died in its hospitals on that date.
CORONAVIRUS ‘IS WIPING DECADES OFF VICTIMS’ LIVES’
Coronavirus is killing people more than a decade before they would have died naturally, according to a study.
Men who die of COVID-19 are losing, on average, 13 years of their lives, scientists say, while women have 11 years cut off their life expectancy.
The disease, which has hospitalised more than 100,000 people in the UK, is having a devastating impact comparable to heart disease, the scientists said.
The research was done by Public Health Scotland and experts at the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh.
It flies in the face of authorities’ focus on the ‘underlying health conditions’ of most of the people dying of COVID-19.
And it goes against claims many of the victims are people who were likely to have died anyway.
Office for National Statistics data shows that most people dying in the UK are aged between 75 and 84.
The Scottish research argues that many of those could have expected years and even more than a decade more life if they hadn’t caught the virus.
Even people with long-term illnesses – known as morbidities – are having their lives cut short by many years, they said.
The scientists, led by the University of Glasgow’s Dr David McAllister, wrote: ‘While media coverage of the pandemic has focused heavily on COVID-19 affecting people with “underlying health conditions”, adjustment for number and type of long-term conditions only modestly reduces the estimated years of life lost due to COVID-19.’
April 10, meanwhile, was the day on which the Department of Health announced the most deaths (980).
This was the biggest single-day announcement of hospital deaths of any country in Europe since the pandemic began.
Today’s figure is 37 per cent lower and represents the next step in what increasingly seems to be a downward trend.
Professor Jim Naismith, a biologist at the University of Oxford, said: ‘The reduction in deaths and drop in the pressure upon hospitals are a welcome respite.
‘As deaths continue falling, we need to remember this is only the first round. When all the deaths are counted, this first wave of COVID-19 will have brought tragedy to families across the UK.
‘We owe it to those families to learn the right lessons from this awful experience and do better.’
The Government last week said the current lockdown, in which people are not allowed to leave their homes except for shopping, exercise and medical appointments, will continue at least into early May.
But some ministers are losing patience and urging Whitehall to give reassurances about when the public might be able to return to work.
They said it is ‘silly’ for the Government not to be totally frank with the public given how well most of the population has stuck to social distancing measures.
They stressed ‘there has got to be an economy to go back to’ as they sounded a warning which will be heard loud and clear in Downing Street.
Treasurer of the Government’s 1922 Committee, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, today suggested a comprehensive plan must be set out within the next month or many businesses ‘are likely to cease trading’.
However, in a sign tensions are likely to rise, Dominic Raab said last night it would be weeks before ministers even think about putting forward an exit strategy.
Chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, admitted some restrictions are likely to be in place for the ‘next calendar year’.
CARE HOME RESIDENTS MAKE UP HALF OF ALL COVID-19 DEATHS IN EUROPE
The World Health Organization (WHO) announced today that residents in long-term care facilities account for up to half of coronavirus-related deaths in Europe.
Hans Kluge, WHO regional director for Europe, said there was a ‘deeply concerning picture’ emerging of the impact COVID-19 is having on those in care.
He told a press conference on Thursday that the way some care facilities operate is ‘providing pathways’ for the virus to spread within the population.
Dr Kluge said: ‘According to estimates from countries in the European region, up to half of those who have died from COVID-19 were resident in long-term care facilities. This is an unimaginable human tragedy.’
Asked how many of Europe’s care home deaths were from the UK, Dr Catherine Smallwood told the briefing the WHO has not yet been provided with the latest up-to-date figures.
The sentiments echoed those shared by the Government’s Chief Medical Officer, professor Chris Whitty, who said he was ‘sure we will see a high mortality rate sadly in care homes, because this is a very, very vulnerable group’.
He told reporters on Wednesday that the 826 deaths reported in England and Wales by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) in the week ending April 10 were ‘an underestimate’.
These latest figures bring the total number of Covid-19 care home deaths since the start of the outbreak to 1,043.
Care home bosses have expressed concerns over acquiring personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing, and one said that some types of equipment are up to 24 times more expensive than they were before the pandemic.
Dr Kluge said that PPE should be provided, and testing of any suspected cases in care facilities should be ‘prioritised’.
He said that staff working in care homes need to start being paid ‘appropriately’, as they are ‘often overstretched, underpaid and unprotected’.
Dr Kluge also told the briefing that 50 per cent of the world’s COVID-19 cases – over 1.2 million – have been recorded in Europe and more than 110,000 people have died.
In signs of progress the Government is now pressing ahead with plans to set up a 15,000 strong contact-tracing army alongside its plans for community testing – it abandoned both surveillance measures at the start of the outbreak, against the advice of the World Health Organization.
Two testing schemes were announced today which will, at last, attempt to draw up a picture of the UK’s outbreak as a whole, not just in hospitals.
People in one thousand households will have blood taken each month to try and keep track of what proportion of the population has immunity to the virus – antibody tests.
And a group of up between 25,000 and 300,000 people will have regular swab tests for the next year to see whether and when they get infected, which should give an idea of the virus’s spread.
Alongside this, a team of thousands of trained ‘contact tracers’ will work to track down people who have been exposed to the virus by people who test positive.
Together, the testing and contact tracing are intended to form a system which aims to watch and control future outbreaks.
By catching infected patients early and isolating them and their families and friends, authorities may be able to stop a nationwide epidemic like the one happening now.
The technique has been used with great success in South Korea which, with the exception of a sudden outbreak of cases stemming from a church in one region, has kept the numbers of infections and deaths low and not needed to go into lockdown.
Professor Naismith, indicating that he expects more COVID-19 outbreaks in the future, said: ‘A large number of tests on their own will not solve the problem; what is needed is a holistic approach seen in South Korea.
‘Germany, like the UK, has controlled the virus by locking down. I believe that the superior testing regime in Germany may have allowed better tracking of the epidemic at the start.
‘Thus Germany may have locked down earlier in the disease cycle and thereby reduced their death toll. Even a few days, when the virus is rapidly spreading, can have large consequences.
‘The UK will face any future rounds with an improved testing infrastructure, a much better understanding of the dynamics of the pandemic and insights into how effective various social measures have been.
‘We are seeing positive hints from passive immune therapy trials that if proven could reduce the number of deaths in a future wave.
‘There are unprecedented efforts to develop effective drugs that I feel sure will bear fruit. Vaccine trials are now underway and we hope they will be successful.
‘Until a vaccine rids us of this disease however, all our efforts should be laser focussed on actions we can take now in the UK to reduce the death toll in any subsequent wave.’
Focus in Government is increasingly switching to how the country will get out of its current lockdown.
As ministers in England’s government have hit out at Downing Street’s lack of a clear plan for lifting restrictions, Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has shed light on what might happen north of the border.
Ms Sturgeon signalled she is willing to ease coronavirus restrictions independently of the UK government as Northern Ireland also suggested it could follow suit.
She today published a blueprint setting out how the current state of lockdown could be lifted as she said there needed to be a ‘better balance’ between tackling the disease and protecting the economy.
She said she wanted to have a ‘grown up’ discussion with the public about how to restore some ‘semblance of normality to our lives’.
The Government is expected to launch a widespread contact tracing scheme to track down people who have been in touch with infected patients
HOW WILL THE ANTIBODY TESTING SCHEME BE CARRIED OUT?
A thousand households will have their blood samples taken every month by a trained medic, the Department of Health last night announced.
Nurses from the private firm IQVIA will carry out the antibody tests, to reduce the burden on NHS resources and personnel.
Antibodies are substances made by the immune system in response to an infection and can be picked-up by just a finger-prick of blood.
Ministers have not announced which company manufactures the test – but the results will be analysed by scientists at Oxford University.
A letter seen by the Press Association news agency says those participating in the antibody testing scheme will not receive their results.
Britain’s scheme is dwarfed by the programme in the Italian region of Lombardy, which is screening 20,000 blood samples each day.
A separate scheme in the US involves 40,000 healthcare workers, while Andorra has ordered enough antibody kits to test its population twice.
Health chiefs have yet to approve an antibody test for mass use, despite promises one would be available to buy from Amazon or Boots weeks ago.
But officials claim the home tests they have looked at are not accurate enough to be used, saying they range from between 50 and 70 per cent.
Ministers announced plans to enrol up to 20,000 people to carry out the immunity tests earlier this month, in its ‘Pillar 4’ plan.
It is unclear when the scheme will be increased in size, or if officials have opted to carry out a smaller surveillance study.
As well as the separate study, Public Health England has been analysing blood tests for antibodies since the beginning of April.
Officials said they were expanding the programme during April ‘so that we have the potential to test around 5,000 samples per week’.
But with just a week until May, figures show fewer than 5,000 samples – including 51 on Tuesday – have been analysed at the Porton Down lab.
Potential changes could include allowing certain businesses to reopen if they can guarantee social distancing, and looking at whether schools could also return, potentially with redesigned classrooms to keep children at least two metres away from each other.
However, she said large gatherings are unlikely to be allowed ‘for some months to come’ while the shielding of the vulnerable will also have to continue for the foreseeable future.
It comes after Arlene Foster suggested Northern Ireland could emerge from coronavirus restrictions at a faster pace than other parts of the UK.
Northern Ireland’s First Minister said lockdown measures will be eased when certain scientific and public health criteria – such as the rate of infection and death rate – are met and not against set timelines or dates.
The developments pile the pressure on Downing Street to set out its own end-of-lockdown plan.
Many of the powers relating to the current lockdown are devolved which means Scotland and Northern Ireland could in theory opt to do their own thing, potentially leaving England and Wales behind.
So far the four Home Nations have been broadly on the same page in terms of action taken during the crisis and any decision to split from that way of working would have major political and social ramifications.
Dominic Raab said last night it will be weeks before ministers even ‘think about’ putting forward a comprehensive exit strategy while Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty said some restrictions are likely to be in place for the ‘next calendar year’.
But furious Tory MPs have warned the government it must spell out in detail how it intends to ease the UK’s coronavirus lockdown to give businesses hope of survival.
There have been signs in recent days that some people are beginning to tire of the curbs on daily life with photographs showing more people on the UK’s roads, using London’s underground and in the nation’s parks.
Meanwhile, the hospitality industry has warned pubs and restaurants are facing a ‘bloodbath’ if the lockdown lasts long into the future as it calls for rent payments to be delayed amid fears one third of the sector could go bust.