Coronavirus cases in the UK could be taking as long as 20 days to double in number, Boris Johnson admitted today as he rowed back from startling claims made by his top scientist only yesterday.
Sir Patrick Vallance warned the doubling time had dropped to just one week, during a televised address to the nation. And he made the terrifying prediction that the UK could be on course to hit 50,000 cases per day by mid-October, unless the outbreak is brought under control.
But Mr Johnson today appeared to distance himself from the pair, as he stood in front of the House of Commons to unveil a wave of new measures designed to stop the spread of the disease, including making the Army available to help police enforce stringent new coronavirus rules.
The Prime Minister, who warned ‘this is the moment when we must act’, told MPs the figure was – ambiguously – somewhere between one and three weeks. Sir Patrick didn’t confess the range could be up to twenty days yesterday, and at the peak of Britain’s first wave, the doubling time of cases was just three days.
Experts lashed out at the ‘implausible’ claim, insisting there was simply no scientific basis for the extraordinary number of infections Sir Patrick had warned about. The stark prediction saw the chief scientific adviser and his colleague, chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty , dubbed Professor Gloom and Dr Doom.
Data based on diagnosed cases now suggest the outbreak is taking two weeks to double, rising from an average of 1,022 infections a day on August 22 to 2,032 on September 7 to 3,929 yesterday. Spain and France, whose outbreaks the UK is feared to be on par with, have yet to get anywhere close to the dreaded 50,000 cases a day mark.
One expert, Professor David Paton, said data had been presented unfairly to the public and demanded: ‘If they’ve got an explanation [for why the data was presented like that], then let’s hear it.’ Other critics accused Number 10 of deliberately trying to ‘scare’ people and Piers Morgan urged No 10 to tell the British public how they arrived at 50,000.
It comes as the UK statistics regulator today revealed it has had to ‘step in’ seven times during the pandemic to alert Government departments to ‘transgressions’ when ministers have quoted data that is not then quickly made available to the public.
The head of the Office for Statistics Regulation described such incidents as ‘disappointing’ and said the principle of ensuring such data is published must be ‘more strongly embedded’. Giving an example, he said he had to contact the Department of Health when a figure for the distance people were travelling to get a Covid-19 test was quoted ‘quite widely in the public domain, but the underlying data weren’t available’.
Experts threw cold water on the dramatic graph presented by Sir Patrick and Professor Whitty, saying it was ‘implausible’ that case numbers would outstrip France and Spain by so much
Prime Minister Boris Johnson today announced a tightening of lockdown rules, including a requirement for pubs and restaurants to shut at 10pm, which he said could last for another six months
As he unveiled his raft of new measures today, Mr Johnson said in Parliament: ‘I’m sorry to say that as in Spain, France and many other countries we have reached a perilous turning point.
‘A month ago, on average, around a thousand people across the UK were testing positive for coronavirus every day. The latest figure has almost quadrupled to 3,929.
‘Yesterday the chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser warned that the doubling rate for new cases could be between seven and 20 days with the possibility of tens of thousands of new infections next month.’
The 3,929 figure the PM referred to is the average number of coronavirus cases diagnosed each day in the week leading up to yesterday, September 21. That has almost doubled from 2,032 on August 22, suggesting a doubling time of two weeks.
However, testing is still only expected to be diagnosing around half of the true number of Covid-19 cases. The Office for National Statistics estimates that 6,000 people per day are catching the virus in England and Wales, a figure which almost doubled from September 3 to 10. But the estimate was before the ‘Rule of Six’ officially kicked in, meaning the measure could have helped to slow the speed at which the outbreak is growing.
The most recent published estimates of the epidemic doubling time – a measure of how fast cases are growing – put it at between seven and 17 days.
The REACT mass testing study, carried out by Imperial College London in conjunction with the Government, predicted on September 11 that it could be as fast as one week (7.7 days) based on test results from between August 22 and September 7.
Using longer term data from tests dating back to July 24, a more conservative estimate was made of a doubling time of 17 days – two-and-a-half weeks.
Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty, holding a one-off televised briefing together yesterday, warned the public about the worst case scenario.
The chief scientific adviser said: ‘If that [rise in cases] continues unabated and this grows, doubling every seven days, then what you see, of course, let’s say there were 5,000 today, it would be 10,000 next week, 20,000 the week after, 40,000 the week after, and you can see that by mid-October, if that continued, you would end up with something like 50,000 cases in the middle of October, per day.’
The number of people officially testing positive – now thought to be approximately half the number of true infections – has doubled once a fortnight over the past month
Sir Patrick stressed yesterday that his sobering scenario of 500,000 cases a day was based on a lot of unknowns. And he said it was ‘not a prediction’
The doomsday prediction was met by outrage in the scientific community, with critics accusing the advisers of ‘scaring people’ and touting ‘implausible’ numbers.
Professor David Paton, an industrial economist at the University of Nottingham, said he was ‘shocked’ at the way the chief scientists presented infections data.
Reeling against yesterday’s presentation he said in a blog today: ‘Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance are eminent scientists and it is inconceivable that they did not know what they were doing in the briefing.
AT A GLANCE: NEW SOCIAL DISTANCING RULES ANNOUNCED TODAY
- Office workers who can work from home should do so.
- English pubs, bars and restaurants must close by 10pm from Thursday.
- The hospitality sector will be restricted to table service only.
- Face coverings must be worn in taxis and retail staff while at work.
- Customers in indoor hospitality must wear face coverings, except while seated at a table to eat/drink.
- Rule of Six exemptions reduced, banning indoor team sport.
- The planned return of spectators to sports venues will now not go ahead from October 1.
- Wedding ceremonies and receptions capped at 15 people from Monday.
‘On one level, they have accomplished their aim: the media is dutifully reporting the frightening “50,000 cases by 13th October” figure and the groundwork has been prepared for the PM’s speech telling us what new restrictions he will be imposing on the country.
‘However, the price of politicising statistics is that you risk undermining public trust in government science.
‘If that is the long term effect of yesterday’s briefing, I wonder if Professor Whitty and Sir Patrick will continue to think it was a price worth paying.’
Professor Paton pointed out that top officials and politicians have warned that the UK is likely following what is happening in France and Spain.
Those nations have recorded a significant rise in daily infections in recent weeks, and hospitalisations and deaths have gone up alongside them.
But they are nowhere near 50,000 per day – with an average 11,105 cases per day in Spain and 10,116 in France.
‘Of course, no-one knows with absolute certainty what will happen to cases in the UK over the next few weeks,’ Professor Paton added.
‘Indicating the likely number of cases if the UK followed Spain or France would not have been an unreasonable approach for Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance to take.
‘So why didn’t they? The obvious suspicion is that 7,000-10,000 cases per day by mid-October might just not have been scary enough for people to accept imminent new restrictions on their way of life.’
Professor Paul Hunter, a a medical expert at the University of East Anglia, said: ‘What they presented is the very worst possible case, given the state of the epidemic at the moment.
‘I think it is pretty implausible we will be seeing 50,000 cases a day by the middle of October.
‘It’s important to bear in mind that they were not making a prediction, they were presenting an illustration of what would happen if cases continued to double, which they almost certainly will not.’
Professor Chris Whitty (right, with Sir Patrick Vallance on the left) appealed to the public’s selflessness in adhering to the rules and not just assuming they could ‘take their own risks’
The University of Buckingham’s Professor Karol Sikora, who has regularly been critical of the Government’s coronavirus response, said: ‘They’re so negative. The graph for the worst case scenario, for 50,000 cases a day by next month, it’s just scaring people.’
And Steve Brown, a self-employed consultant with 20 years of statistical experience, told MailOnline: ‘We know that SAGE is deliberately using personal fear to drive behaviour, that is documented in the minutes and is their policy.
‘Although the graph presented by the Government advisors may not have been intended as a prediction, many people will understandably see it as such.’
Piers Morgan, raging about the prediction on Good Morning Britain today, said: ‘If you want the headlines to be 50,000, that’s the figure you use, that’s what they did.
‘But they haven’t explained, actually, what they’re basing it on given that in every other country nobody is projected to be anywhere near that by the middle of October.
‘And that’s the problem. That the people who are sceptical about this, and don’t want any action, are saying “why have you reached that figure?” And that’s what Boris Johnson has to answer – is to tell the British public why have we arrived at 50,000?’