Coronavirus cases are much lower than they were in March and local lockdowns may have prevented a nationwide second wave, says ex-Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt
- Jeremy Hunt said Britain is in a ‘totally different position’ to the spring
- He praised the way Italy contained its epidemic to the north of the country
- Called again for regular mass testing for medical staff in the NHS before winter
Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said today that regular swab testing for NHS staff should be in place before the winter
Britain is in a ‘totally different position’ to where it was in the spring and local lockdowns may have helped avoid another disaster, according to Jeremy Hunt.
The former Health Secretary said today that mass testing has ‘definitely made a difference’ to the effects of this second surge in cases.
Mr Hunt, who is now chair of Parliament’s health committee, reiterated his call to have mass regular testing for NHS staff to keep on top of the outbreak.
He has repeatedly spoken out in favour of the policy and has been scathing of the Government’s struggles to get large-scale testing up and running.
His comments come as positive coronavirus tests in the UK are continuing to rise to levels higher even than those seen during the spring outbreak’s darkest days.
But the cases being announced now – thought to be a large proportion of the true number of infections – are still only a blip in the country’s timeline after experts predict more than 100,000 people per day were catching it at the epidemic’s peak but only tiny numbers were getting tested.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4 this morning Mr Hunt said: ‘I think it’s important to say we’re in a totally different position.
‘An interesting thing to look at is that, in May, we weren’t doing any testing in the community and we had the highest death rate in Europe.
‘In September, we’re doing the most tests in Europe and we’re in the bottom half of European countries for coronavirus deaths. So that’s definitely made a difference.
‘But what we also know now, which we didn’t know then, is that for every one direct Covid death there is an indirect death caused by delays to cancer services and changes to emergency admissions, early hospital discharges and so on.’
He said that more co-ordinated, organised action since the lockdown rules were lifted appear to have prevented a second national crisis.
Without local restrictions in areas where infection rates are high, he said, the country might have been faced with another out-of-control situation like the one in March.
‘I think the evidence from what happened earlier in the year,’ he told the Today programme, ‘is that acting early, decisively, quickly, is actually the best way to contain the spread of the virus and that’s what I think Chris Whitty and the Prime Minister are saying.
COVID-19 CASES ARE FLATTENING BUT STILL AT 20,000 PER DAY, STUDY PREDICTS
King’s College London’s weekly estimate of the number of people catching coronavirus in the UK suggests that the growth of the outbreak is slowing down, but there are still nearly 20,000 people getting infected each day.
The Covid Symptom Study, run in conjunction with ZOE, a health-tech team that runs the Covid Symptom Tracker app, estimates there are now 19,777 people getting infected each day across the UK.
This is a rise from the 16,130 daily infections prediction last week but the increase is smaller than it was between the previous two estimates.
The rise from September 24 to October 1 was 23 per cent, while between September 17 and 24 it more than doubled from 7,536 (a 114 per cent increase).
Some 14,837 of these cases are thought to be happening in England, with the majority in the North East and Yorkshire and the North West (a total of approximately 8,800).
A further 2,294 people are thought to be getting sick each day in Scotland, along with 1,331 in Wales and 1,315 in Northern Ireland.
The estimates are based on the results of 8,377 swab tests. And they suggest that the reproduction rate of the virus, the R, has fallen, too – to 1.2 in England, 1.3 in Scotland and 1.4 in Wales.
Professor Tim Spector, an epidemiologist and leader of the study, said: ‘We are confident that this flattening in the data looks real and that this might be an early sign of infection rates slowing down.
‘This may be due to a number of factors including social distancing and the “rule of six”, but we can’t discount the role of less susceptible people and prior immunity in those exposed and the natural cycle of the virus.
‘We are seeing nearly 50 per cent of our cases are coming from the under 30s, which is more than in the spring, which may explain why the pressures on the NHS are less.
‘We still need to continue to work together to make sure this flattening off isn’t a small blip. As we head into winter we all need to be cautious and pay attention to the advice we are being given around local restrictions, social distancing and avoiding gathering in large groups.’
‘One of the things that is often not noted about Italy was the successful way in which they managed to contain the outbreak of the virus in northern Italy, in Lombardy, and avoid it spreading to the rest of the country.
‘Now, we didn’t manage to do that first time round but it just may be that these local lockdowns, although we haven’t seen a big reduction in transmission within those areas, they may just have contained it and stopped it from becoming the national outbreak that we had before.’
In his interview Mr Hunt also called again for NHS staff to get swab tests regularly to prevent the virus spreading inside hospitals.
Currently, staff are generally only offered swab tests if they have symptoms of the disease, but care home carers are tested every week.
NHS workers do get priority access to tests over members of the public, according to the Department of Health’s rationing list, but they cannot get tested whenever they want.
The ex-Health Secretary said regular testing would help people to feel safe if they had to go to hospital for something that wasn’t Covid-19.
Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, appealed in a TV briefing last night for people to see their doctors as usual without fear of coronavirus.
The Health and Social Care Committee, of which Mr Hunt is the chair, said it was ‘yet to understand’ why routine NHS testing had not been introduced and called for it to happen as quickly as capacity allows and ‘certainly before winter’.
The cross-party group of MPs said staff treating patients should not be put at any ‘further unnecessary risk’ of catching or spreading Covid-19.
In a report, they said: ‘The committee accepts the advice from many eminent scientists that there is a significant risk that not testing NHS staff routinely could lead to higher levels of nosocomial (hospital-acquired) infections in any second spike.
‘We therefore urge the Government to set out clearly why it is yet to implement weekly testing of all NHS staff.’
MPs said the Government and NHS England must set out by the end of October what current capacity there is for testing all NHS staff, what further capacity may be needed and how long it is likely to take to offer routine testing.
Their report warned that around 70 per cent of Covid-19 carriers could be asymptomatic ‘and only the routine testing all healthcare staff will ensure core health and care services are returned to normal levels’.
Mr Hunt added on Times Radio: ‘The way you give people confidence is by saying that every member of staff in this hospital, everyone who has any contact with patients, is being tested once or twice a week.
‘There are definitely measures that you can take and I think hospitals have shown incredible resilience in tackling these kind of logistical challenges.
‘But I do think it’s very important as we go into winter, when hospitals are going to become a lot busier anyway, that we avoid what happened.
‘One major London teaching hospital had more than 40 per cent of their staff infected.
‘That’s an incredibly dangerous thing to allow to happen and that’s what we have got to make sure doesn’t happen this time.’
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