Dr Jenny Harries, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, admitted it was worrying that people may be ‘cramming into cars’ sharing cutlery on the beach and being very close together this weekend, after the hot weather drew crowds to beauty spots
The UK has announced 113 more Covid-19 deaths today, the lowest since lockdown began, taking the official count to 38,489.
Today the Department of Health reported the lowest figure in almost ten weeks – 74 people died on March 23, after which the crisis spiralled out of control.
However, the weekends always see a significant drop in deaths due to a lag in reporting. Last Sunday health officials declared 118 deaths, which was a 30 per cent drop from the week before.
Today has not seen such a dramatic reduction from the week before. But deaths are still declining from the peak in mid-April when the worst day saw 1,172 people die.
Dr Jenny Harries, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, warned it was a ‘critical time’ for following social distancing rules as England moves into the next phase of the lockdown from tomorrow.
Already thousands have flocked to crowded beaches and beauty spots this weekend to enjoy the hot weather ahead of the rule changes.
Dr Harries admitted it was worrying that people may be ‘cramming into cars’ sharing cutlery on the beach and being very close together, amid scientists’ warnings the relaxation of measures will ‘inevitably’ cause cases to surge.
The next step will also allow more than two million extremely vulnerable people in England who have been shielding for weeks to spend time outside, the Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick confirmed today.
Speaking at the Downing Street briefing, Mr Jenrick said from tomorrow those people will be able to see a relative again or go for a walk, as long as they socially distance.
Despite the death toll reaching 38,489, back-dated data from death certificates shows more than 46,000 people had been killed by the virus by May 15, 36 per cent more than the official toll given by the Department of Health (33,998) at that time.
If the same mathematical sum was applied to today’s official count of 38,489, it would suggest the true death toll currently is around the 51,000 mark.
There have been 274,762 positive test results since the crisis began. But this is a tiny fraction of the millions who would have been infected and never got a test.
Department of Health said that testing capacity reached the Prime Minister’s 200,000 target yesterday, despite only 115,700 tests being conducted.
Officials said the 200,000 includes the ability to do only around 112,000 diagnostic tests, including home testing kits, drive-through sites, and mobile testing units dealt with by laboratories, per day.
It’s unclear how the marginal increase (12,000 since the end of April) will support the new contact tracing system which launched on Friday.
Dr Harries said at this afternoon’s press briefing: ‘We have testing capacity up to 200,000, so we have lots of available use as we move into our test and track system.’
When Boris Johnson pledged to run 200,000 tests per day by June on May 6, Downing Street said hours later the figure referred to testing capacity rather than the actual number of tests completed.
The government was accused of ‘bending the rules’ to reach its initial coronavirus testing target of 100,000 per day by the end of April by including home testing kits that had been sent out, but not processed.
Testing continues to fall short of the PM’s own promise as long ago as 25 March that test numbers would ‘very soon’ reach 250,000 per day.
There are still 54,000 new infections happening each week – down from 61,000 per week at the start of May – and 133,000 people are thought to currently have the virus. This means one in 1,000 people are still catching it.
The Prime Minister says the Government’s five tests have been met and it is safe to start relaxing restrictions from tomorrow. But the alert level remains at four – which suggests they should stay in place.
From tomorrow, up to six people from six different households permitted to meet up in public places or gardens, putting exercise classes and barbecues back on the agenda.
Crowds have flocked to beaches and parks this weekend in defiance of the lockdown rules that remain in place until Monday.
They were tempted by temperatures that soared to 80F (27C) with the country enjoying the sunniest spring since records began and the driest May since 1862.
Official mobility data shows the number of people venturing out to parks has increased far above pre-lockdown levels as people look to socialise in outdoor spaces.
Mr Jenrick was asked how worried he is having seen pictures this weekend where social distancing has been difficult or impossible at the Downing Street briefing today.
He said: ‘We’re reasonably confident that the steps we’ve taken and will be taking on Monday are manageable but we have to all continue to play our part in that because the rate of infection remains somewhere between 0.7 and 0.9 and the room for manoeuvre is quite limited.
‘We’ll obviously keep this under very close scrutiny as we move into this next phase and as we approach the next decision point on June 15.’
When asked why lockdown rules are being relaxed ahead of the UK reaching the green Level 3 of the Covid alert system, Mr Jenrick said the latest steps are ‘cautious, modest ones entirely consistent with the message the Prime Minister delivered’.
Mr Jenrick said: ‘The alert level is changing. We are still at Level 4 but we’re transitioning to Level 3 and that does enable us to very cautiously open some businesses and aspects of our daily lives.’
Dr Harries added that despite the easing in restrictions, ‘the public really, really need to stick to those messages’ of social distancing and limiting exposure to other people.
From tomorrow, families across England will finally be able to see their relatives or friends who have been ‘shielding’ for months, Mr Jenrick confirmed this afternoon.
As part of the easing of lockdown restrictions, 2.2million vulnerable people will be take ‘small changes’ after spending weeks inside.
Guidelines will say they can go outside and meet one other members of their household, while continuing to follow social distancing guidelines.
Those being shielded are warned they still remain at risk and are advised to leave the house only once a day. They should not go to work or the shops and avoid crowded places.
Mr Jenrick said the relaxation of shielding will have a ‘huge impact’ on people’s mental health and wellbeing, while ensuring face-to-face contact is kept to a minimum.
Dr Harries emphasised that the shielding guidance is ‘very much advice’ that doesn’t need to be followed, and that ‘nothing will ever be 100 per cent safe’.
A series of experts have raised concern about the move to ease lockdown from Westminster – which has not been replicated in Scotland or Wales.
THOUSANDS OF NEW HOMES FOR ROUGH SLEEPERS
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick pledged to build thousands of new homes to shelter rough sleepers.
At this afternoon’s Downing Street briefing, Mr Jenrick said ministers were looking at the next steps after the pandemic, having been able to offer accommodation to over 90 per cent of the homeless since the start of the crisis.
Mr Jenrick said: ‘Some people will need help to return to the private rental sector, but others will need accommodation to be provided so that they can start to rebuild their lives.
‘That’s why 6,000 new supported homes will be made available for rough sleepers, providing safe accommodation for people we’ve helped off the streets during the pandemic.’
The Government will back the initiative and give £433million to fast track securing safe accommodation.
Mr Jenrick said 3,300 of the ‘homes’ will become available in the next 12 months, and £160million will be spent to deliver that.
‘But rough sleeping is as much a health issue, as it is a housing issue. It’s a crisis of addiction and mental health as well,’ he said.
‘So we will provide specialist support staff for rough sleepers in this new accommodation to ensure that they can continue to receive the health support that they will need to transform their lives and fulfil their potential.’
Head of the Covid-19 rough sleeping taskforce Dame Louise Casey warned that ‘the pandemic is not over’ and vulnerable people must still be protected.
‘For homeless people the task was to bring as many people in off the streets and out of communal shelters,’ she told the Downing Street press conference.
‘The goal was to protect rough sleepers from the virus, give them the chance to self-isolate and ultimately therefore do the best we can to save their lives.’
It will be around two or three weeks before the effects of the latest easing of restrictions is known, but Prof Devi Sridhar, who has been advising the Scottish government, warned it looks ‘inevitable’ that cases will rise again in England.
‘I’m very sorry to say that I think it is right now inevitable looking at the numbers,’ she told Sky.
‘If your objective is to contain the virus, to drive numbers down and to try to in a sense get rid of it so no-one is exposed to it, then it is not the right measure right now to open up.
‘It’s a big risk and gamble for exiting lockdown with a larger number of deaths than we did when we actually entered lockdown months back.’
Prof Sridhar said there was now a clear divide between Government and some scientists, but added that ultimately decisions will be made by politicians.
She said: ‘I think what they should be saying is they consider the science, and hopefully they listen to it but the decision, and who actually has the accountability, are the politicians and leaders.’
Professor Peter Openshaw, who sits on the the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) to the Government, said people must proceed with ‘great caution’ as the lockdown is eased.
He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr programme: ‘At the moment, we still have quite a large number of cases out there in the community and I think unlocking too fast carries a great risk that all the good work that’s been put in by everyone, to try to reduce transmission may be lost. So we do need to proceed with great, great care at this point.’
Asked if the Government is going too fast, he said: ‘I think there is a pretty unanimous message now that we need to take this slowly and go step by step. We need to evaluate the effect of each step before we move to the next one.’
England’s deputy chief medical officer yesterday pleaded with Britons ‘not to tear the pants out of’ the loosened lockdown when more freedoms are granted on Monday.
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam warned that abusing new liberties would fuel the spread of infection and said that the lifting of curbs should be treated as if gently lifting the lid on a coiled spring – ‘painstakingly’ slow.
The top scientific adviser said the country was at a ‘very dangerous moment’ in the crisis, as thousands of sun-seekers packed on to beaches to bask in scorching weather.
Professor John Edmunds, an epidemiologist at the School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said the Prime Minister had ‘clearly made a political decision’ because the threat of a second peak remains high.
Two other Sage experts lined up behind Professor Edmunds on Saturday to caution that measures were being relaxed when the infection rate was still not low enough.
But the chair of the government’s Sage board has said it is for the government to decide when to ease lockdown measures.