The UK is “probably reaching the peak” of its coronavirus outbreak but thousands more people will die before attention turns to easing the lockdown, the chief medical officer has warned.
Professor Chris Whitty said that while a slowdown in the rate of new COVID-19 infections was a positive sign, there would still be increases in the number of deaths.
Another 761 patients with coronavirus were confirmed to have died in UK hospitals on Wednesday, but a lag in reporting due to the Easter weekend means the increases could be greater over the next few days.
Speaking at the government’s daily news briefing in Downing Street, Professor Whitty said: “Our view is that it is probably reaching the peak overall.”
He added: “We do all think that this has flattened out, but sadly we do think that high numbers of deaths will continue for a short while on from where we are at the moment.
“At the moment we are not yet at the point where we can say confidently and safely this is now past the peak and we can start thinking very much about the next phases.”
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The number of deaths reported by the Department of Health have been below 800 for four days running, but the government’s figures – which only account for deaths in hospitals – tend to spike towards the end of the week.
Separate figures from the Office for National Statistics have also suggested that the UK’s true coronavirus death toll is much higher than the hospital figures indicate.
The latest update on Tuesday showed 10% of coronavirus-related fatalities in England and Wales during the week ending 3 April did not happen in hospital, with more than half of those happening in care homes.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock made several commitments regarding care homes during Wednesday’s briefing, including that close relatives will be allowed to visit dying loved ones “wherever possible”.
But on the topic of the lockdown, he echoed Professor Whitty’s comments that it was too soon to consider changing restrictions and hinted that the measures would be officially extended on Thursday.
The lockdown has surpassed the original three-week timescale laid out by Prime Minister Boris Johnson last month; however, Mr Hancock said lifting the measures too early risked wasting the public’s efforts.
He said: “This shared sacrifice is starting to work but we will not lift these measures until it is safe to do so.”
Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who is deputising for Mr Johnson, and fellow ministers are expected to sign off the extension after receiving advice from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).
Deputy chief scientific adviser Dame Angela McLean said the lockdown appeared to have been particularly effective in the capital, with the number of hospital cases in London seemingly falling faster than the rest of the UK.
“We really expected everywhere to be the same – that is not really exactly what we are seeing,” she said.
“Maybe one of the reasons the number of people in hospital beds in London seems to be falling faster is, perhaps, because cases rose faster, people responded to the earlier bits of advice about staying away a little bit faster.”
Experts outside Downing Street have also expressed some optimism about the latest figures,
Professor James Naismith, from University of Oxford, said: “Provided delays due to the Easter weekend have not distorted these figures, then today’s number of announced hospital deaths taken with the last week of data does indicate that this measure of the pandemic may indeed have peaked.
“If true, any sense of relief must be tempered by the fact that we will see hundreds of hospital deaths announced each day for some time ahead.”