The UK has recorded its highest daily rise in coronavirus infections for two months, with government data showing a total of 1,441 new cases.
New daily positive tests had fallen significantly from a peak of more than 6,000 through April and May to a low of 352 on 6 July.
But data from the Department of Health and Social Care shows a steady rise since this point, with Friday’s figure some four times higher than those seen just over a month ago.
The rise in positive tests appears to have begun in the days after lockdown was eased considerably on 4 July, dubbed “Super Saturday” – with pubs, restaurants, hairdressers, places of worship and community centres among a raft of businesses and public spaces permitted to reopen with social distancing measures in place.
Amid rising infections, England’s chief scientific adviser Chris Whitty warned on 31 July that “we have probably reached near the limit or the limits of what we can do in terms of opening up society”, as Boris Johnson conceded it was necessary to “squeeze the brake pedal” on the return to normality.
The new positive tests reported on Friday – the highest number since 14 June – brings the UK’s total of confirmed infections to 316,367.
A further 11 people were announced to have died within 28 of testing positive for Covid-19, bringing the total to 41,358. Separate figures by the Office for National Statistics show there have been 56,800 fatalities in the UK with Covid-19 mentioned on the death certificate.
It came as the government’s scientific advisory group, Sage, said it did not have confidence that the R rate was below 1 in England, despite their official estimate of the UK’s infection rate – which has a time-delay of several weeks – remaining unchanged at between 0.8 and 1.
However, estimates of the growth rate of transmissions provided by Sage subgroup, the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (SPI-M), indicated a slight increase, rising from between minus five per cent to zero last week to between minus four per cent to minus 1.
“We are starting to see early indications that these values may be increasing,” both Sage and the Government Office for Science said on Friday in a statement.
“This is not yet reflected in these estimates because the data used to calculate R and growth rate reflect the situation from a few weeks ago.”
A time delay between initial infection and the need for hospital care usually means it may take between two to three weeks for the changes in the spread of Covid-19 to be reflected in the estimates.
But models that use Covid-19 testing data, which has less of a time delay, indicate higher values for R in England, the Government Office for Science statement said.
“For this reason, Sage does not have confidence that R is currently below one in England.
“We would expect to see this change in transmission reflected in the R and growth rate published over the next few weeks as we gain more certainty of what is currently happening.”
However, the government officials and advisers said is also important to recognise that these are estimates, and there is a high degree of uncertainty with them.
Dr Yuliya Kyrychko, reader in mathematics at University of Sussex, added: “Whereas the headline value for the range of R values has remained unchanged since last week, we should note that apart from the South East, for all other regions of England, the higher end of the R range is 1, or even 1.1 for the North West.
“Although there is uncertainty associated with estimating the value of R number, particularly when the numbers of new infections are low, the fact that the seven-day average of new daily infections has been steadily increasing since the middle of July suggests that it is very likely that the view of Sage on R number not being below 1 is correct.
“What this means in practical terms is that the situation is pretty much on the precipice, and then it can develop very rapidly, which means that all possible caution should be taken by the public.”
Meanwhile, health minister Edward Argar signed off on fresh coronavirus laws allowing casinos, indoor skating rinks, indoor play areas, bowling alleys, conference centres and exhibition halls to open in England from Saturday.
With schools yet to return at the start of September, the prime minister has described this as the “national priority”, with Downing Street confirming that pubs and restaurants will have to close to keep schools open in the event of local outbreaks.