The United Kingdom, where at least 41,777 people have died with coronavirus, faces an exponentially growing death rate within weeks unless the government moves urgently to halt a rapidly spreading second wave, the country’s senior medics said on Monday.
The UK already had the highest official COVID-19 death toll in Europe – and the fifth-largest in the world – while it wass borrowing record amounts in an attempt to pump emergency money through the damaged economy.
But new COVID-19 cases have been rising by at least 6,000 a day in the UK, according to week-old data, hospital admissions are doubling every eight days, and the testing system is buckling.
Chris Whitty, the government’s chief medical officer, and Patrick Vallance, its chief scientific adviser, cautioned that if left unrestricted, the epidemic would reach 50,000 new cases a day by mid-October in the UK.
“If this continued along the path … the number of deaths directly from COVID … will continue to rise, potentially on an exponential curve, that means doubling and doubling and doubling again and you can quickly move from really quite small numbers to really very large numbers,” Whitty said.
“If we don’t do enough the virus will take off and at the moment, that is the path that we are clearly on and if we do not change course then we’re going to find ourselves in a very difficult problem.”
The virus is spreading across all areas of the country and less than 8 percent of the population have antibodies to the virus, though in London approximately 17 percent of the population may have antibodies, Vallance said.
Speed and action are urgently needed, Vallance and Whitty said, adding that as winter was approaching the COVID problem would haunt the UK for another six months at least.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson is due to speak on Tuesday.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the restrictions would be different from last time. The government wants to crack down on socialising but schools and many workplaces will stay open.
“If we do have to take action, it will be different to last time and we’ve learnt a huge amount about how to tackle the virus,” he told ITV.
“Schools aren’t where a lot of the transmission happens, it’s more about people socialising,” he said.
Asked about Christmas and if people would be able to hug their relatives, he said he wanted it to be as normal as possible.
“If this runs out of control now, we’ll have to take heavier measures in the future,” Hancock said.
Al Jazeera’s Neave Barker, reporting from London, said Johnson has spent the weekend mulling the possibility of new restrictions.
“There are various reasons for why the figures are going up like this. The government has been accused of not doing enough to ramp up testing. There doesn’t appear to be the type of capacity needed in the laboratories to increase testing. Also, the message doesn’t seem to be getting across in some parts of the country.
“It is believed that one in five people are not following instructions to isolate when they are being told to do so.”
Meanwhile in France, the number of French deaths from the disease rose by 12 during the preceding 24 hours to 31,585, the health ministry said on Sunday. The cumulative number of confirmed cases now stands at 453,763.
Besides a resurgence in the spread of the coronavirus since lockdown measures ended in May, epidemiologists said higher case numbers are also the result of a six-fold surge in testing since the process became available without charge or prescription.
“Doctors in some cities, including Bordeaux and Marseille, who say they are seeing so many people coming into the hospitals could come under immense pressure very soon,” said Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Paris.
The French government, attempting to avoid further economic strain, is urging people to be extremely vigilant while some local authorities are using their powers to put in place local restrictions.
“So, we have seen some towns like Lyon and Marseille put in restrictions on the amount time people can stay outside at night,” said Butler, adding Nice was limiting the number of people gathering in groups to 10.
The growth of cases in the UK and France is also being witnessed in other European countries, leading to debates across the continent about whether lockdowns should be prioritised over a push to restart economies.
Efforts to stem Europe’s fastest coronavirus spread in some of Madrid’s working-class neighbourhoods brought a heated debate about the prevalence of inequality in Spain back into the spotlight on Monday.
The measures, including a requirement to justify trips out of the neighbourhoods and reduced occupancy in shops and restaurants, affect some 860,000 residents and have met protests because many of those affected, and some experts, believe that authorities are stigmatising the poor.
Spain is struggling to contain a second wave of the virus, which has killed at least 30,000 people, according to the country’s health ministry.
Madrid has become the epicentre of contagion, with a rate of infection – 682.57 cases per 100,000 inhabitants in two weeks – nearly three times the national average of 267.82. Europewide, that number last week was 76.
“Across Europe, there is a difficult balance that has to be met by governments where on one hand they have to try to keep economies afloat and on the other hand try to protect people’s wellbeing and their health,” said Butler.
“In Spain, a country so badly affected in March and April at the height of the pandemic, we are seeing cases rises again rapidly in the Madrid region. Local authorities there are putting in a partial lockdown.
“People are being urged to stay at home in many districts, but they can still go out and work. Again, trying to keep the economy afloat, trying to keep people in jobs.”