National lockdown should be over before Christmas as the Government’s top medical adviser said he expects it to turn the coronavirus tide.
Prof Chris Whitty told MPs that the crucial R reproduction value – how many people the average patient infects – should drop below 1 by December 2.
England’s Chief Medical Officer had previously publicly doubted whether Boris Johnson ’s Tier 3 regional measures would be enough to put the outbreak on the retreat.
He gave evidence to the Science and Technology Committee on the day it emerged GPs are being put on standby for a potential Covid-19 vaccine rollout from next month.
Prof Whitty said: “The aim of the whole thing is that R is not greater than one.
He added: “I do think it is sensible to see how we go on this but I have quite a lot of faith in the adherence of the general public that would lead to the R reducing.
“That’s what I anticipate and that’s what all the data shows. People intend to do this and I am expecting that the R will drop.”
He insisted the final decision on whether to leave lockdown lies with the Government which is already under pressure from anti-lockdown Tory MPs.
The Prime Minister has said he wants the four-week national lockdown to end as scheduled on December 2 and told ministers on Tuesday there was “light ahead”.
But Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said at the weekend that the lockdown could be extended if the virus is still spreading rapidly.
Wales has just left a national lockdown while Scotland is under pressure to lock down after its new five tier regional system came in to force on Monday.
Prof Whitty suggested rising cases among the over-60s was the reason for the nationwide lockdown, despite early evidence overall rates in some Tier 3 areas was falling.
He said the current three tiered system of local restrictions may have to be changed if lockdown is lifted from December 2.
He said: “I think that the Prime Minister would probably want us to look at whether there should be variations on the exactly the same tiering system, rather than just assuming we would just revert to an absolutely identical one.”
Family doctors are reportedly going to be told to be prepared to start vaccinating over-85s and frontline workers from early December.
Work has been going on behind the scenes to prepare for any potential Covid vaccine and how it could be rolled out.
GP magazine Pulse reported GPs will receive a “directed enhanced service” from next week which sets out how they deliver a service above their usual contract.
There are two frontrunners in the Covid-19 vaccine race – candidates from German biotech firm BioNtech and US pharmaceutical company Pfizer and the vaccine candidate being developed by University of Oxford and AstraZeneca.
Both vaccine candidates are currently in phase three clinical trials.
Before any vaccine comes to the market, regulators have to confirm they are safe and effective.
It has been suggested that regulators could be getting clinical data within weeks.
There are currently around 1,500 Covid-19 patients being admitted to hospitals daily and around 11,000 patients are already in hospitals.
Prof Whitty was about rates falling in Liverpool, which had previously been the worst affected areas.
He told MPs: “We are not seeing that (falling infection) reliably in the older age bands as it’s moved up through the age bands.
“And that’s important because actually the rates falling in people in their 20s will actually have remarkably little impact on the NHS.”
He added: “The rates are still steadily tracking up in all the data that I have seen in the older age groups who are the ones who are likely to translate into hospitalisations, ICU cases and deaths.”
Prof Whitty and Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance were summoned to give evidence after the pair had unveiled a “reasonable worst case scenario” at Saturday’s Downing Street briefing that 4,000 deaths-a-day could occur by December 20.
The scenario was compiled on October 9, five days before new localised tier restrictions came into effect.
Sir Patrick admitted the figure was “not as reliable” as more recent modelling, also displayed at the Downing Street briefing, looking only six weeks ahead.
When asked whether he was “frightening” the public, he replied: “I hope not and that’s certainly not the aim.”
It came in a tetchy exchange in which the Government’s top advisers were told people had been “horrified” by the deaths data and asked whether they regretted publishing them.
Prof Whitty said: “I think that if there is someone whose feeling is that the difference between them being supportive of these very restrictive and difficult measures is the difference between 1,000 deaths a day and 4,000 deaths a day – remember that if there were 1,000 deaths a day that would imply significant pressure on multiple other bits of the NHS.”
The pair admitted the 4,000 deaths scenario was based on an ‘R’ rate of 1.3 to 1.5. The Government had publishing an R rate of between 1.1 and 1.3 the day before the press conference.
On Tuesday, Cambridge University estimated there are now 77,000 new daily infections in England and calculated that the outbreak is doubling every 15 days.
An independent expert running a popular symptom tracker app used by millions of Brits claimed R is falling and may be around 1.
Professor Tim Spector, who leads the Covid Symptom Tracker app, which is run by King’s College London (KCL), tweeted: “More good news as the Zoe CSS app survey continues to show a plateauing and slight fall in new cases in England, Wales and Scotland with an R of 1.0.”
He added: “While rates may be starting to come down in children and the younger adults – there is a slow rise in the over-60s who are more likely to go to hospital – so we can’t relax.”
New Office for National Statistics data showed weekly deaths involving coronavirus are at their highest since early June.
A total of 978 deaths registered in England and Wales in the week ending October 23 mentioned Covid-19 on the death certificate.
It is the highest number of deaths involving Covid-19 since the week ending June 12, and is up from 670 deaths in the week to October 16 – a jump of 46%.
North-west England had 325 deaths involving Covid-19 registered in the week ending October 23 – the highest number for the region since the week ending May 22, according to the ONS.
In Yorkshire and the Humber, 159 Covid-19 deaths were registered in the week to October 23, which is the highest since the week to June 5.
In north-east England, 114 Covid-19 deaths were registered, the highest since the week to May 29.
Registered deaths involving Covid-19 increased week-on-week in every region of England in the week to October 23.
Just under 63,000 deaths involving Covid-19 have now occurred in the UK, the new figures show.