Another national coronavirus lockdown in the UK is a possibility that should be avoided that at all costs, a leading UK scientist has said. Prof Peter Horby said the UK was at a “precarious point” as Covid cases and hospital admissions continue to rise.
His comments echo those of England’s deputy chief medical officer, who said more deaths would follow and urged people to limit social contact.
However, ministers say their local approach to restrictions is the right way forward.
The prime minister is expected to announce tougher local restrictions on Monday.
In a statement to MPs, Boris Johnson will outline plans for a three-tier system, where each region in England is placed into a tier based on the severity of cases in the area.
He has spent Sunday afternoon updating cabinet ministers on the next steps.
The plans have already sparked opposition, with Labour MPs in Greater Manchester telling Johnson they would not support being placed under the harshest level of restrictions.
Across the UK, the R number – the average number of people each infected person passes the virus on to – is now estimated to be between 1.2 and 1.5. Anything above 1.0 means cases are increasing.
On Sunday, 12,872 people in the UK were reported to have tested positive for coronavirus – some 2,294 fewer than on Saturday – according to the latest figures on the government’s dashboard. There were a further 65 deaths – down from 81 on Saturday.
Prof Horby, chair of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) and a government adviser, said the “critical mission” now was to protect the NHS to avoid non-essential hospital services being cancelled, as many were when the UK went into its first nationwide lockdown in March.
“We really need to provide care to everybody – those with Covid and those without,” he said. “The way to do that is to keep the numbers down.”
He warned that some hospitals in the north of England were already coming under pressure and it might not be long before intensive care beds fill up.
“I am afraid we are going to have to make some very difficult choices and act very quickly,” he added.
Prof Horby said a surge in cases in the North was partly because people were coming into contact with more people than in other parts of the country.
He also told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that in the months before the increase in cases, numbers had not dropped to as low a level in the North as in other parts of England.
Prof Horby said the country must accept more stringent measures to drive down transmission of the virus.
In an earlier statement, England’s deputy chief medical officer Prof Jonathan Van-Tam said the UK has reached a “tipping point” in its epidemic, similar to that last seen in March.
The seasons were “against us” and the country was running into a “headwind” ahead of the winter months, he warned.
It is expected that parts of the north of England and the Midlands will be placed under tougher measures as part of the prime minister’s announcement.
Liverpool, where there are currently 600 cases per 100,000 people, is expected to be placed under the most severe set of restrictions, with all the city’s pubs forced to close.
Pubs and restaurants across the central belt of Scotland closed their doors for at least two weeks on Friday, to try to tackle a rise in cases.