One of the largest studies into the prevalence of Covid-19 in England has shown a doubling of infections in a sample of volunteers, underlining the challenge the government faces as it seeks to stem the spread of the disease without resorting to a national lockdown.
More than 85,000 people were tested in England between October 16 and 25, as part of the study conducted by Imperial College London with Ipsos Mori and commissioned by the UK department of health.
The survey found that 128 people per 10,000 were infected in England, up from 60 per 10,000 in the previous version of the study, which ran from September 18 to October 5. The virus is doubling every nine days and the R rate — the average number of new cases generated by an infected individual — is estimated to be 1.6, despite the government’s goal to keep it below 1.
Paul Elliott, who is the director of the programme at Imperial, said the findings “paint a concerning picture of the situation in England, where we’re seeing a nationwide increase in infection prevalence, which we know will lead to more hospitalisations and loss of life”.
Prof Elliott noted early signs that areas which previously had low rates of infection were now following trends observed in the country’s worst-affected areas.
“Now more than ever we must all work together to curb further spread of the virus and avoid subsequent overwhelming of the health service,” he added.
Infections rose across all age groups and regions of the country, according to the Imperial survey. The most marked rise was among 55- to 64-year-olds, where the percentage of infections increased more than threefold from 0.37 per cent to 1.2 per cent, but infections remained highest in those aged 18-24.
The north remains the worst-hit area, with the highest number of infections in the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber.
Jonathan Ashworth, Labour’s shadow health secretary, said the study, combined with the news of 300 more deaths from the virus, “demonstrates the seriousness of the situation we are now in”.
Boris Johnson had said his current approach would bring the R number under 1. “Ministers must now outline whether they think their current approach is meeting that promise,” Mr Ashworth added, suggesting the prime minister should have implemented “a time-limited circuit break” over the school half-term to push infections down.
Meanwhile, the government announced that the whole of Nottinghamshire would from today move from a “high” to a “very high” local Covid alert level. Restrictions include a ban on people socialising with anyone they do not live with, or have formed a support bubble with, “in any indoor setting or in any private garden or at most outdoor hospitality venues and ticketed events”, said the health department.
Nor are people allowed to socialise in a group of more than six in any outdoor public space and all pubs and bars will have to close, unless they are serving substantial meals.
Separately, the Healthcare Safety Investigation Branch has completed an inquiry into the spread of Covid-19 in hospitals, following data presented to Sage, the government scientific advisory group, in mid-May that suggested about 20 per cent of patients were reporting symptoms seven days after admission.
The HSIB called for more testing for NHS patients and staff, including more rapid testing as soon as supplies became available. Changes should also be made to the design of hospitals to reduce the risk of infection transmission, the HSIB suggested.
It said a lack of clarity and changing guidance on PPE had “created anxiety for staff, patients and families”, adding that some trusts “had concerns that there may be challenges to PPE provision in any further peak in Covid-19 activity”.
It also highlighted the effects of “staff fatigue and emotional distress” which it suggested could have an impact on the NHS’s ability to mitigate in-hospital transmission of the disease “and its ability to respond to a further rise in Covid-19 activity”.
Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, which represents leaders across the health system, said the HSIB “was right to emphasise the importance of improved testing capacity for staff, and to point out the challenges that additional infection control requirements place on the NHS estate”. This, she said, had “highlighted yet again the impact of years of inadequate capital investment”.