SAGE advisers' estimates of how many people are catching Covid-19 each day actually went down at the end of October, despite Boris Johnson forcing the nation into another lockdown amid fears the virus was out of control.
In a slide shown in the Prime Minister's gloomy TV briefing, chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance pointed to one projection that there are currently between 50,000 and 63,000 new infections per day in England.
But the most recent estimate, manufactured by SAGE sub-group SPI-M, was a downgrade from one it made just a week earlier on October 20, when it projected there were 53,000 to 90,000 infections per day, suggesting the Government's top scientific advisers have toned down how fast they think the virus is spreading.
The more conservative estimate was made on October 27, five days before the second lockdown was announced. It came after a month of the group warning every week that infections were spiralling but failing to provoke any action from the Government as advisers and scientists across the country piled pressure on the PM for nationwide policies.
Mr Johnson's top advisers also warned on Saturday that hospital admissions for Covid-19 and the numbers of beds filled by coronavirus patients are surging and the NHS could run out of room by December, unless any action was immediately taken.
But there is no data to show how full hospitals really are. Neither the Government nor NHS bosses provide regular updates of what proportion of beds are full or how many beds are still available. Instead, they offer a weekly report on how many Covid-19 patients are being treated at each trust and a once-a-month update on how many of the overall number of beds occupied are taken up by the infected.
There are known to be more than 114,000 hospital beds available in England but only around 9,000 are currently occupied by coronavirus patients. The total number of inpatient beds that could be called upon – including those rented from private hospitals and those in make-shift Nightingales – is unknown. Government graphs suggest the 'current available capacity' is only around 20,000 despite almost 40,000 beds sitting empty during the spring.
Hospital beds are filling up mostly with people who caught the infection days or even weeks ago, however, and positive tests appear now to be tailing off, adding to confusion about the true direction of the outbreak.
The 4,000 deaths per day scenario was based on the assumption that there would be 1,000 per day by the start of November. Real numbers of people dying are significantly lower, with an average 182 per day in England and 162 confirmed yesterday for the whole UK
SPI-M estimate of new infections declines
The estimate of new cases, made by the SAGE sub-group SPI-M-O, is considered one of the three most reliable ranges and was shown alongside estimates based on mass testing by the Office for National Statistics and the Government-funded REACT study.
The claim that 4,000 people could be dying from coronavirus by next month could be four or five times too high and not reflect the current situation, experts warn.
The shocking figure was presented by chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance in Saturday's TV briefing where Boris Johnson announced the UK's second lockdown.
But there are concerns that it's out of date and inaccurate, with SAGE accused of 'misleading' the public and MPs by cherry-picking the scariest data.
Professor Carl Heneghan, of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford, said he 'cannot understand why they have used this data'.
The forecast could be four or five times too high, he said, because it is based on there being an average 1,000 deaths per day in the UK right now. In reality the daily average was 182 per day October 22 and 28, according to Department of Health data.
The number, which appeared as the worst case on a graph with three other possible scenarios, was created by statisticians at the University of Cambridge and Public Health England who have since revised their numbers and lowered the possible numbers of deaths. The team's forecasts are not published online, like some of their other work, but are sent directly to SPI-M, a sub-group of SAGE, to do with it what they choose.
A potential 4,000 fatalities per day if there are no changes to restrictions was almost twice as high as the second worst case, which put them at a touch higher than 2,000 per day.
The lowest estimates in the no-action scenario estimated deaths at just below 2,000 per day, and all were higher than the peak in the first wave, when the most deaths were recorded on April 8 (1,073).
Professor Heneghan told The Telegraph: 'Our job as scientists is to reflect the evidence and the uncertainties and to provide the latest estimates.
'I cannot understand why they have used this data, when there are far more up-to-date forecasts from Cambridge that they could have accessed, which show something very different.'
In a blog post, Professor Heneghan and Dr Dan Howdon, a medical researcher at the University of Leeds, explained that the project that created the 4,000-per-day estimate has been update twice since and downgraded the numbers.
It had been based on an estimate of 1,000 deaths per day on November 1, but there were really only 162 announced yesterday.
Taking the mid-point of the range suggests SPI-M's best estimate of new daily cases has dropped from 71,500 to 56,500 in a week – a fall of 21 per cent.
And the upper limit of the estimate was lower on October 27 than at any time since October 7 – it fluctuated from 57,000 then to 74,000 up to 90,000 and back down to 63,000.
Although the drop estimate doesn't indicate a trend because it is only one week's change, it marks a slowdown in the experts' previously soaring estimates. They narrowed the range and have tended towards the lower end of predictions made in the most recent weeks.
The SPI-M estimate came after a week of confusing data that suggested the number of people catching the virus each day could be anywhere between 34,000 and 96,000 in England.
One of the Office for National Statistics' top Covid-19 analysts said on Friday that cases in England were 'rising steeply', while an epidemiologist behind another project said people could be 'reassured' that the virus isn't out of control.
Of studies estimating the numbers of new infections each day in England, the ONS put the figure at 51,900; King's College's Covid Symptom Study said 34,628; a Cambridge University 'Nowcast' said 55,600; and the Government-funded REACT study by Imperial College London put it at 96,000.
The Department of Health's official testing programme is only picking up 23,016 infections each day, but is known to miss large numbers without symptoms.
All the calculations have increased since their previous estimates and are in agreement the outbreak is still getting worse, but the speed at which this is happening is unclear.
Hospital admissions are rising but maximum capacity is unknown
While tens of thousands of people continue to catch coronavirus every day, the number of people heading into hospital is surging.
In October the number of people in English hospitals with Covid-19 soared almost five-fold from 1,995 on the first of the month to 9,213 on the 31st, Department of Health data shows.
And Mr Johnson and his advisers warned in Saturday's briefing that admissions are on track to exceed levels seen in the spring crisis within weeks, heading for more than 30,000 inpatients by the end of November and more than 4,000 new admissions per day in the first week of December.
But how much capacity hospitals actually have to cope with a surge in Covid-19 patients is not clear.
NHS England's most up-to-date occupancy figures show 113,000 hospital beds were taken up across the country on October 1 — but just 2,000 of these were patients who had tested positive for Covid-19.
The number of Covid-19 patients being admitted to hospital has since spiralled – with 9,000 beds in England taken up by the infected on October 31.
But health chiefs have never released figures detailing exactly how busy the NHS is, or was, throughout the course of the pandemic.
MailOnline revealed at the height of the first wave in April that Covid-19 patients never made up more than 30 per cent of the total beds occupied. Just under 19,000 patients out of 70,000 in hospitals at that time had Covid-19.
But it is not clear how many more beds could have been used by the NHS if it needed them, with thousands made available in Nightingale hospitals and deals to rent beds on with private wards.
Tens of thousands of beds were left empty and unused during the peak of the first wave after hospitals turfed out patients to make room for an overwhelming surge in Covid-19 patients that never fully materialised.
In April the Health Service Journal reported that 41 per cent of NHS hospital beds were empty on the weekend of April 11-12 — around 37,500 out of a possible 91,600.
And the NHS has kept hold of the thousands of beds it commandeered to fight off the first wave, with nine make-shift Nightingale facilities on standby to help cope with a second surge of Covid-19, meaning capacity has been upgraded past its usual 110,000.
NHS England figures show hospitals across the country were 92 per cent full last December, with 93,442 beds out of 101,598 taken up by patients needing overnight care, on average.
Winter always increases pressure on hospitals because flu is in circulation, and it is not clear whether some beds will have to be closed in order to segregate patients onto Covid and non-Covid wards.
Positive tests in England appear to be levelling off
But as hospital beds start to fill up, England's coronavirus cases appear to have started levelling off after a mid-September surge, according to official statistics which have sparked more confusion about testing data.
Statistical projects tracking the disease's spread have estimated there are between 34,000 and 100,000 new infections happening each day in England, and that transmission is doubling every nine or so days.
The overwhelming consensus that this is the case has been used by Government scientists to justify retreating back into a national lockdown like the one that gripped the country in the spring.
Yet the central testing regime is picking up fewer than half as many cases as experts believe are being contracted, according to latest Public Health England data.
The most recently published figures by PHE suggest the outbreak has stabilised, with the number of people who are testing positive every day actually falling for two consecutive days.
Average daily cases in England peaked at 18,500 on October 26, up just 2.3 per cent in four days, according to the most recent snapshot.
Yet the REACT-1 study, commissioned by the Department of Health, estimated that there were about 96,000 new infections on October 25 and that the figure was doubling every nine days.
But the official figures show confirmed cases have only doubled in between three and four weeks, soaring from below 9,000 on October 2 to 18,500 on October 26.
The discrepancy between the official testing numbers and the gloomy figures by scientists reveals how Number 10's scheme is failing to keep up with the epidemic and does not accurately reflect its current trajectory.
There are thought to be several factors behind the disparity. But the main issue is that the central system is forced to prioritise symptomatic people and vulnerable groups because of a lack of capacity.
Experts believe up to 80 per cent of Covid-19 infections are mild or asymptomatic, which make them harder to track down and isolate.
Between 200,000 and 300,000 tests are being carried out every day in England — a figure which has crept up only incrementally since summer.
A fifth of tests carried out every day are on patients and staff people in hospitals and care homes, who are prioritised because patients and residents are among the most vulnerable to falling critically ill or dying from the disease.
Latest figures for October 29 show a total of 272,510 swabs were conducted, of which 60,969 (22 per cent) were on these groups.
The number of tests that need to be done to find a single case of coronavirus has plummeted because so many more people now have the virus, data shows. During the summer, dozens and even hundreds of tests were carried out for every one positive result because fewer than 30,000 people were thought to have the virus. Now, more than 500,000 people are thought to be carrying the virus in England so significantly fewer tests have to be done to find a positive case
There is no doubt that coronavirus infections are still surging in the UK but mathematicians and scientists don't agree on how bad the second wave really is.
A raft of statistics have been published in the past 48 hours with conflicting estimates of the number of