The current national lockdown restrictions could be too “lax” to curb rocketing infections, say experts, and police will focus on enforcing the rules rather than on explaining them, government sources said.
New infections and deaths in the UK reached record highs on Friday.
A government advertising campaign fronted by the UK’s chief medical adviser, Prof Chris Whitty, urges people to behave as if they have Covid-19 and “once more, stay home”, as hospitals across the country are getting close to capacity, particularly in London and the south-east, where in some areas as many as one in 20 people have the virus and the mayor, Sadiq Khan, has declared a state of emergency.
Boris Johnson described the latest surge in infections as “alarming”.
Prof Susan Michie, a health psychologist who advises the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), told the BBC Today programme that there had been 90% compliance with the third lockdown, but that government guidance was still enabling too much mixing on public transport and busier streets.
“This is quite a lax lockdown. Because we’ve still got a lot of household contact, people go in and out of each other’s houses, if you’re a cleaner, a non-essential tradesperson, a nanny; you have mass gatherings in terms of religious events, nurseries being open,” Michie said.
Adam Kucharski, an associate professor of infectious disease and epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said cases would continue to rise in the coming weeks. “I think the key period is going to be the next week or so. Even if we get that reproduction number down to 1, if we get the epidemic flat, that’s an epidemic that’s going to be plateauing at this really high level of hospitalisations.”
He said data suggested there was more movement in the population than during the first peak in April, despite each social interaction now being much riskier than in the spring.
“To some extent, we can think of this as a new pandemic in a pandemic. New data is suggesting that the risk from every contact is probably 40-50% higher than it was.
“So both for the UK and for many other countries as well, we need to get away from this idea that we’re going to see a repeat of what happened last spring with our behaviours and really face the possibility that this is much riskier and we’re going to have to work much harder to reduce the impact.”
Wendy Simon, the acting mayor of Liverpool, which now has more than 800 cases per 100,000 people, told Today: “I do think the majority of people do get what the threat is; the difficulty is some of the messages around, perhaps, not becoming so ill, particularly with younger people. […] Particularly since Christmas, the age group between 20 and 40 are those that have been most impacted; we’ve seen a lot more people reporting feeling ill with the virus.”
Justin Varney, the director of public health in Birmingham, said: “We’re very worried. We still haven’t seen the impact on the NHS of the rapid rise that we saw around the 28 and 29 December after the Christmas bubble. So it is going to get a lot, lot worse, unless we really get this under control.”
The national lockdown, Varney said, was “the right move”, but it would take about another two weeks before the effects of lockdown would begin driving numbers down.
Prof Rupert Pearse, an intensive care consultant, told Today: “I’m very worried that we’ve reached the peak and we’re really not seeing the kind of behaviour that we saw in the first wave. I and many of my colleagues in medicine are extremely worried that the peak, this third wave, is just going to carry on rising and rising.”
Prof Kevin Fenton, the London regional director for Public Health England, said on BBC Breakfast that people doubting the seriousness of the situation needed to read and listen to the words of NHS staff, and Covid-19 patients who had had “this very severe disease and are suffering from the long-term effects of it”.
“This is the reality and that is the truth. So the advice would be listen, read, but stay at home. Protect yourself, protect your families.”
Fenton added that there were “things we could do better” to reduce the number of infections, including greater compliance with mask wearing and social distancing when using public transport and shopping for essential goods.
Police forces across the country have said they will enforce the nationwide restrictions more strictly.
The Metropolitan police said Londoners “can expect officers to be more inquisitive as to why they see them out and about” to make sure they have a reasonable excuse for leaving their homes.
Derbyshire police issued two women with £200 fines when they went for a walk on Wednesday at a remote spot about five miles from their homes, and described their actions as “clearly not in the spirit of the national effort” to reduce travel and the possible spread of coronavirus.
The force has since said all fixed penalty notices issued during the latest national lockdown will be reviewed after it received clarification about coronavirus regulations.