In Depth

Has Britain ‘lost control’ of the coronavirus crisis as cases hit 3,000 a day?

Health secretary says steep hike is ‘concerning’ - but quirk in the testing system could be to blame

Critics are accusing the UK government of “losing control” of the coronavirus pandemic as Health Secretary Matt Hancock admits that a sharp rise in daily cases across the UK is “concerning”.

Almost 3,000 new infections were recorded on Sunday alone - up by more than 1,000 from the total on Saturday, and the highest UK daily total since May. Hancock told Sky News that recent “cases are predominately among younger people”.

But he added that countries worldwide had seen a “rise in the cases amongst younger people leading to a rise across the population as a whole”.

Has the UK lost control of the virus?

Government figures published yesterday revealed that 2,988 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus had been recorded in the UK in the previous 24 hours, up from 1,813 cases on Saturday.

“The figure on Sunday marks the highest number of infections since 22 May, when 3,287 cases were recorded,” the i news site reports. “It is also the first 24-hour period when cases passed 2,000 since the end of May.”

Labour’s shadow health minister Jonathan Ashworth said the spike in infections was “a stark reminder that there is no room for complacency in tackling the spread of the virus”.

The “ongoing testing fiasco where ill people are told to drive for miles for tests, and the poor performance of the contact tracing system, needs an explanation from ministers”, Ashworth added.

Scientists have also voiced concerns. Christina Pagel, a professor of operational research at University College London, told The Guardian that “it’s a massive jump”. 

“There is no way you can look at these figures and feel confident that things are going in the right direction,” she said.

According to the newspaper, a “government source said there was significant concern that the UK was ‘six weeks behind France’, where the trajectory showed more young people being infected, leading to increased hospitalisations of vulnerable groups”.

Or is the government’s response working?

Since June, when England “took a big step out of lockdown”, overall cases have remained low enough to suggest that the UK is on the right track, The Economist suggested last week.

“The government’s decision to ease restrictions was a gamble, but one that has paid off,” the magazine said. “Following a small rise in July, the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) infection survey, which tests a sample of people in England and Wales each week, finds that the number of cases has since remained flat.

“Although there has been a gradual rise in the number of positive test results, much of this is accounted for by the fact that the number of tests has increased, meaning more asymptomatic cases are found and false positives recorded.”

In addition, experts say that a quirk of the testing system may be to blame for the spike this week.

Paul Hunter, a professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, says some of the new cases “may be because of catch-up from delayed tests over the past few days”, The Guardian reports. But the Sunday tally was still “a marked increase”, he added.

Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at The Open University, agrees that as The Times puts it, “some of the peak is because of a bunching-up of tests from last week”.

“This week’s tests, when we’ve got all the results in, will show higher levels than the week before, almost certainly,” he told the paper.

Scientists also point out that six weeks of rising cases has not yet resulted in a rise in deaths, with three recorded in England yesterday, taking the total official number of Covid-related fatalities in the UK to 41,551.

“Experts believe this is because the UK epidemic is now increasingly concentrated in younger age groups, with two-thirds of new infections in those under 40,” The Times reports.

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