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Second wave of Covid-19 looks like string of local outbreaks instead of national surge, says PM



The second wave of Covid-19 looks like a series of local outbreaks rather than a national resurgence of the epidemic, Boris Johnson and Chris Whitty have suggested in a sign they are leaning against a second England-wide lockdown.

The Prime Minister and his top advisers began a new series of regular press conferences on Wednesday by warning that case numbers are “heading in the wrong direction” – even though recent scenarios showing infection rates doubling every week now appear overly pessimistic.

Another 7,108 coronavirus cases were confirmed on Wednesday, around the same as the day before and up 15 per cent on a week earlier. There were 71 recorded deaths across the UK. Cases have risen sharply among those aged 17 to 21 – although not among younger children despite the reopening of schools.

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Mr Johnson insisted it was not yet possible to determine whether new restrictions such as the Rule of Six and the 10pm pubs curfew had been effective in driving down infection rates. He dismissed calls from some of his allies to loosen the restrictions in order to boost the economy, saying: “I don’t think it’s what the British people want, I don’t think they want to throw in the sponge.”

‘Highly concentrated’

Prof Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance made clear that the data still indicated a long, difficult winter ahead (Photo: Jack Hill/AFP/Getty)

He said that the pattern of infections in the second wave was different to the initial outbreak in spring, adding: “We are seeing some very clear local peaks, just as there were local peaks in Italy and other countries. It may be that this is a more localised phenomenon this time in which case all the more reason for us to concentrate on these local solutions as well as these national solutions.”

Professor Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said: “If you look around Europe during the first wave that happened here, the UK was an outlier in having an epidemic that was almost uniform in shape, although not absolutely in size across the whole country. And if you look at Italy and Spain, for example, significant epidemics but very, very highly concentrated. Now it is possible that in this next stage of the epidemic here we will have a pattern like that where it is highly concentrated in certain areas, much lower in others.”

The Prime Minister again refused to rule out imposing significantly stricter rules on the whole of England, and chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said: “It would be wrong to take from this that this is a problem that’s only in certain areas. It’s worse in certain areas, but there is evidence of spread everywhere.”

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Sir Keir Starmer questioned whether the system of local restrictions was successful in curbing infections. The Labour leader said: “There needs to be an urgent review into whether these local lockdowns are working in the way that is intended.”

Professor Whitty and Sir Patrick were asked at the press conference whether they regretted publishing a graph which suggested the UK was on course for 50,000 cases a day by mid-October, given that infections have not been doubling every week as they suggested could happen in a worst-case scenario. The chief scientific adviser said: “This is heading in the wrong direction, there is no cause for complacency here at all… We don’t have this under control at the moment.”

Why did Boris Johnson call Wednesday’s press conference?

There was no big new announcement, but the Prime Minister has decided to bring back Downing Street press conferences on a “regular basis” (though not daily) after being criticised for poor communication with the public and shielding his scientific advisers from scrutiny.

Is he considering a second lockdown?

Mr Johnson again repeated his threat to lock the country down again if necessary, but made it clear that the current pattern of infections shows cases rising much more quickly in some areas than others – meaning he is likely to stick to his current strategy of imposing local rather than national restrictions.

Does that mean I don’t have to worry if I live in a low-infection area?

Sadly not. Infection rates continue to grow in every part of the UK, and could easily run out of control if people do not adhere to social distancing rules. Even from a low base, the nature of exponential growth means the situation can rapidly deteriorate anywhere.

Does it matter that cases are rising, when it’s mostly young people catching the virus?

Unfortunately it is clear that, while young people may have started the second wave, the virus has been spreading to older and more vulnerable parts of the population. Hospital admissions are now rising sharply everywhere, particularly in the North-West, North-East and Midlands. The death rate is also growing.

Is this all because of schools reopening?

Probably not. It does seem to be the case that the return of schools has put pressure on the UK’s testing system, because many children are coming down with Covid-like symptoms. But the number of pupils confirmed to have contracted coronavirus remains relatively low; besides, the wave began several weeks before the start of term.