Matt Hancock began his media appearances on Friday by saying it was “perfectly possible” the peak of the disease could arrive in nine days’ time.
His comment led to confusion hours later at the daily Downing Street press conference as the government’s deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, asked when the epidemic was expected to peak, said: “We don’t know the answer to that yet.”
Van-Tam said it was “too soon to say” when the peak would hit, appearing to contradict the health secretary.
“It will partly depend upon how well those social distancing measures are adhered to by every one of us,” he said.
“I hope it will be soon. We’re going to watch very carefully to see when we’ve hit the peak and when we’re starting to turn it, but we will not take any premature actions.”
Easter Sunday falls on 12 April this year, and Hancock had earlier said he would not steer people away from anticipating that date as the peak in the number of fatalities in the UK, though there was still uncertainty around it.
He clarified his remarks during the Downing Street press conference on Friday evening after being asked again by Sky News when he thought the peak would fall.
“The truth is that we don’t know,” he said.
He claimed his remarks had been over-interpreted and he had been clear that the government could not give a definitive answer in his earlier interviews.
He said: “Actually, there’s a reason we don’t know, and that’s because it depends on how people act, and this is why the absolute central message, the most important message that anybody can take away from this press conference or the entirety of the government’s messaging and how we feel, is that you’ve got to stay at home.”
The first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, said Hancock’s 12 April suggestion did not feel accurate considering the evidence she had assessed.
She said: “I want to be very clear that nothing I have seen gives me any basis whatsoever for predicting the virus will peak as early as a week’s time here in Scotland.”
Her chief medical officer, Dr Catherine Calderwood, stressed: “I have not been able to find that the peak will be as soon as we’re hearing in the media today. Now is not the time to think that perhaps it will all be over soon.”
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