The Covid pandemic has reached a “critical” stage in England, with prevalence doubling since last month with the fastest increases in the south where the R number has risen above 2, research has found.
While cases remain highest in northern England, a dramatic increase in infections has been recorded across all areas, according to the latest interim findings from the React-1 study from Imperial College London.
It triggered warnings from scientists that current measures – including bans for millions on households mixing and the closure of pubs – were not working and urgent action is needed to avoid a sharp rise in hospitalisations and deaths.
The React-1 study found that infections are still highest among 18- to 24-year-olds (2.2%) but are spreading into older and more vulnerable age groups. The percentage of people infected aged 55-64 increased more than threefold from 0.37% to 1.2%.
There has been a downturn in infections among young people in the north-east, where the strictest tier 3 restrictions were first imposed, the scientists said, but a large increase in the numbers among over-65s which is likely to translate to hospital admissions and deaths.
In the south-west, which has had low prevalence, there is now a rise in infections in 18- to 24-year-olds. “We’re seeing a pattern in the south which is similar to what we saw in the north a few weeks back,” said Prof Paul Elliott, director of the programme at Imperial from the School of Public Health.
Since their last report, “everything has got worse”, he said. “It’s still the same simple message, which is that we have to reduce social interaction.” That may be through people changing their behaviour, perhaps in response to rising hospital admissions and deaths. “Whether that’s something that people really understand or whether it requires more intensive measures – that’s really a policy decision,” Elliott added.
The study found that the England-wide R rate has risen to 1.6 since the last findings, from mid-September to early October, when it was 1.2. In the south-east, south-west, London and the east of England, R was over 2 – although without sufficient data for absolutely certainty. The interim findings are from half of the study – swabs taken from 85,000 people – and will need to be confirmed.
The R rate – the number of people each person with the virus infects – needs to be below 1 for the pandemic to shrink. The virus is doubling every nine days, the research found.
Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor of cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, said the “sobering numbers” should act as a wakeup call: “We can expect this situation to continue to deteriorate if authorities remain slow to react.”
Prof Igor Rudan, joint director of the Centre for Global Health at the University of Edinburgh, said: “The measures that were in place over the past two months across most of Europe were clearly insufficient to prevent the new large growth of infected cases and fast spread of the virus.”
The study will fuel calls for more restrictions on social gatherings in the runup to Christmas. The environment secretary, George Eustice, said on Wednesday that families will be banned from having large Christmas gatherings if necessary to curb the spread of the virus.
Eustice said on LBC radio that it was too early to outline exactly what restrictions would be in place over the festive season, but admitted that families would be barred from “coming together in large gatherings” if necessary.
It came as a leading government scientific adviser warned that the number of coronavirus patients in UK hospitals could pass the spring peak by the end of November without further lockdown measures.
Sir Mark Walport, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said it was “not unrealistic” that there would be 25,000 people in hospital with Covid by the end of next month – higher than the April peak.
Walport compared the UK’s situation with France, where he said 16,000 Covid patients were in hospital including 2,500 people in intensive care – roughly half of its capacity – compared with 852 in intensive care in the UK. The situation was similar in Spain, he said.
“With our current measures, which are similar but with variations in different parts of Europe, there’s good evidence that there isn’t as much social distancing as there was when we clamped down in the first wave,” he said.
The React-1 study showed that Yorkshire and the Humber had the highest prevalence, at 2.7%, up from 0.84%, followed by north-west England (2.3% up from 1.2%). That means more than one in 40 people were infected in Yorkshire and the Humber as of Sunday 25 October.
The report concluded: “The co-occurrence of high prevalence and rapid growth means that the second wave of the epidemic in England has now reached a critical stage. Whether via regional or national measures, it is now time-critical to control the virus and turn R below one if further hospital admissions and deaths from Covid-19 are to be avoided.”