LONDON—Britain has been placed on high alert for an overwhelming second wave of the novel coronavirus pandemic after the country’s top scientists warned that, in a matter of weeks, tens of thousands of people could be testing positive for the disease every day.
Over the summer, there has been a sustained campaign from Boris Johnson’s government to return to life as normal. Brits have been urged to head back to their favorite pubs and restaurants for government-subsidized meals, and office workers have been told to return to mingle with their colleagues and revitalize the economy by buying sandwiches.
On Monday morning, that all came to a juddering halt.
In a grave televised address from Prof. Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, Britain’s chief scientific adviser, the nation was told that as many as 50,000 people could test positive for COVID-19 every day by mid-October—and around 200 could lose their lives daily—if the current trajectory isn’t interrupted urgently.
Dashing hopes that the first COVID-19 wave could provide a level of protection this time round, Vallance said that just 8 percent of the population has had the virus, judging by antibody tests. In London, which has been used as an example worldwide of a city that might have achieved a level of herd immunity, that figure is still fairly low at around 17 percent. Vallance said that may well slow the virus’ spread, but will not stop it.
“It means the vast majority of us are not protected in any way and are susceptible to this disease,” Vallance said.
The scientists also warned that there’s no evidence that virus is milder now than it was during the first wave, despite suggestions to the contrary, and said that wintry conditions will likely help its spread.
Cases have risen dramatically in Britain since the post-lockdown summer months. On Sunday, a further 3,899 cases and 18 deaths were reported. Explaining the trajectory, Vallance said: “At the moment we think the epidemic is doubling roughly every seven days... If, and that’s quite a big if, but if that continues unabated and this grows doubling every seven days... if that continued you would end up with something like 50,000 cases in the middle of October per day.”
Britain’s chief scientific adviser went on: “Fifty thousand cases per day would be expected to lead a month later, so the middle of November say, to 200-plus deaths per day... The challenge therefore is to make sure the doubling time does not stay at seven days.”
Whitty said deaths could rapidly get out of control due to the exponential growth in infection numbers. He explained: “You can quickly move from really quite small numbers to really very large numbers because of that exponential process. So we have, in a bad sense, literally turned a corner, although only relatively recently.”
The scientists don’t hold the power to introduce any new measures to help slow down the spread of the virus. However, Whitty suggested that the time is now right for the government to reintroduce restrictions on people’s lives, saying that “unnecessary links between households” such as social activities, eating out, and office office work should stop again.
Johnson has expressed his reluctance to repeat the strict national lockdown that he imposed in March, when the virus was at risk of overwhelming the country’s hospitals, but has conceded that he may soon need to “intensify things” to stop the exponential spread of the virus.