Fears England may have jumped the gun with a second national lockdown grew today after top scientists claimed the R rate has already dropped to the crucial level of one and that Covid-19 cases are actually 'flatlining'.
King's College London academics, who have been tracking the size of the coronavirus outbreak since the summer, argued cases were now 'plateauing' and there was a 'slight fall' in new infections across the UK last week.
Professor Tim Spector, the lead scientist behind the KCL study, revealed the latest R rate estimate on Twitter today, hailing it as 'good news'. He has already questioned the need for a second national lockdown because the virus was 'running out of steam'.
SAGE — the Government's Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies — estimated the UK's R rate is between 1.1 and 1.3, meaning it had dropped for two weeks in a row. But the group, which has advised Number 10 throughout the pandemic, claimed cases were still growing 'rapidly across the country'.
Boris Johnson today promised there are 'better days before us' in the pandemic. The Prime Minister told Cabinet ministers the R number was 'only just above 1' and the lockdown would bring it back below threshold. He said 'we don’t want to be doing things to repress liberty, we don’t want to do anything to damage our economy' and said 'we would see fatalities running in the thousands if nothing was done'.
It came hours after Oxford University's Professor Carl Heneghan claimed infections, hospital admissions and 'in effect' deaths were already flatlining before Saturday’s announcement.
And he slammed the graphs the Government's top scientific and medical adviser used to justify England's second lockdown in the gloomy TV briefing announcing the lockdown Saturday night, insisting they were misleading with one 'proven to be incorrect'. One, which suggested there could be up to 4,000 deaths per day by December, was 'mathematically incorrect' and should not have been used, he claimed.
Sir Patrick Vallance and Professor Chris Whitty have come under fire for gloomy slides they presented in the press conference at the weekend, and were grilled MPs on Parliament's science committee this afternoon to justify the evidence for another national lockdown. The pair admitted England's three-tiered lockdown system was working before the Government pressed the nuclear button on a second national shutdown — but claimed they were not working quickly enough to stop the NHS running out of space within three weeks.
Meanwhile, Britain yesterday recorded its lowest number of daily Covid infections for a fortnight on the same day Boris Johnson desperately tried to convince Tory MPs to back a draconian second lockdown.
Department of Health figures showed 18,950 people tested positive for the disease, which was down 9.3 per cent in a week and the lowest since Monday, October 19 (18,804). The UK also saw another 136 coronavirus deaths — a rise of 33.3 per cent on the 102 lab-confirmed fatalities posted last week.
Top scientists said all signs now seemed to indicate the three-tier lockdown scheme was starting to work but had not been given enough time to be reflected in the data. It will pile pressure on Boris Johnson to pause the national shutdown on Thursday, which is set to last until December 2 but could be extended if the crisis is not controlled.
Number 10 was lambasted for being too slow to go into lockdown during the first wave in spring - Britain was one of the last countries in Europe to implement the draconian measures - which is thought to be partly behind the UK having the highest death toll on the continent. There is a suspicion that Downing Street decided to lock down as soon as possible over winter to avoid making the same mistakes, and coming under the same scrutiny, as it did in spring.
King's College London academics, who have been tracking the size of the coronavirus outbreak since the summer, argued cases were now 'plateauing' and there was a 'slight fall' in new infections across the UK last week. Professor Tim Spector, the lead scientist behind the KCL study, revealed the latest R rate estimate on Twitter today, hailing it as 'good news'
Boris Johnson is pictured leaving 10 Downing Street where he attended a cabinet meeting this morning. He reportedly insisted the lockdown restrictions would come to an end on December 2
The KCL data — based on millions of people who use the symptom-tracking app — suggests the R-rate is now at one, which would mean the pandemic is no longer increasing in some of the worst areas
Sir Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty have admitted England's three-tiered lockdown system was working before the Government pressed the nuclear button on a second national shutdown
Director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine Carl Heneghan (left) said mathematically the document should not have been used to justify the new lockdown curbs (right, the PM today)
Sir Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty have admitted England's three-tiered lockdown system was working before the Government pressed the nuclear button on a second national shutdown.
The chief scientific and medical officers made the comments today as they were hauled before MPs to defend SAGE's doomsday forecast that hospitals would be overrun with Covid-19 patients by the end of this month.
During the grilling by members of the House of Commons Health Select Committee, the experts admitted the localised, tiered approach - only introduced on October 14 - was starting to drive down the R rate and slow the spread of infections, particularly in northern hotspots which had been subjected to 'Tier Three' restrictions.
But Professor Whitty claimed the measures were not working fast enough to counteract a mid-September surge in infections which modellers believe will breach national hospital capacity by November 20.
The Chief Medical Officer said: 'It is difficult to be absolutely confident about how far their effect [the tiered system] has gone. I am confident the Tier Two has had an effect and that the Tier Three has had a bigger effect. I am confident of that.
'The community in the North and Midlands in particular, obviously London too has went into a Tier Two and some parts of eastern England too, have responded remarkably to this. And because of that, I am confident the rates are substantially lower than they would've been if this had not happened.
'But the early indications we have at the present is that this has not achieved getting the R below one - it has brought it much closer to one - but it is still doubling over a longer period of time.'
In other developments to the UK's coronavirus crisis today:Michael Gove was forced to admit he got the new lockdown rules wrong after suggesting golf and Coronavirus accounted for one in every 10 deaths in England in mid-October up from one in 15 a week earlier, official figures showed; NHS hospitals in England appear quieter than usual for this time of year, leaked documents suggested, even though they are treating more than 9,000 patients with coronavirus; Every resident of Liverpool will be offered a coronavirus test as the first major step for Operation Moonshot – the scheme that the Government hopes will help it get on top of the crisis by the spring; The Scottish Tory leader warned that Boris Johnson is fuelling support for independence and must 'reflect' on his performance during the pandemic; Protests of more than two people will be banned during the month-long lockdown set to start on Thursday, according to Whitehall sources; Up to 10,000 people have booked holidays in a day ahead of the second national lockdown, which will see borders slammed shut from tomorrow night.
The KCL data — based on millions of people who use the symptom-tracking app — suggests the R-rate is now at one, which would mean the pandemic is no longer increasing in some of the worst areas.
Keeping the R rate — which represents the average number of people each Covid-infected patient passes it to — below one is critical to prevent cases from spiralling exponentially.
According to the scientists, who calculate the R rate by comparing new infections with the speed of growth over time, cases in northern England and the Midlands, which are bearing the brunt of the second wave of infections, stopped increasing four days ago.
Other experts have also questioned why further measures were announced before the three-tiered system was given time to take effect.
Experts have told MailOnline it takes three weeks for interventions to take effect on the epidemic. Mr Johnson's tiered approach only came into force on October 14.
Professor Heneghan, who has been an outspoken critic of the Government's lockdown strategy, said that trends in the country's epidemic have changed in recent weeks and stopped accelerating.
Although deaths will continue to rise for weeks because of infections that have already happened, he said they would slow down accordingly.
Professor Heneghan said on BBC Radio 4's Today programme this morning: 'Right now cases are shifting in a way they weren't three weeks ago. They are starting to flatline.
This slide presented on live TV on Saturday shows a projection of deaths hitting 4,000 per day by the end of December (blue line) but experts say they are 'concerned' about the decision to include this because it is based on old data that has since been updated
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
King's College London academics claimed the R rate has already dropped to the crucial level of one in England, but SAGE estimates it is between 1.1 and 1.3 (shown, SAGE's predicted R rates across the country)
Coronavirus accounted for one in every 10 deaths in England in mid-October up from one in 15 a week earlier, official figures show.
In the week ending October 23, 978 out of the total 10,739 people who died had Covid-19 (9.1 per cent), according to the Office for National Statistics, compared to 6.4 per cent a week earlier – 670 out of 10,534.
The increase in coronavirus-related deaths marked the seventh week in a row that the number had increased after it dropped below 100 per week for a brief period during the summer.
And the data shows that the number of people who died in care homes, where residents are among the most vulnerable to Covid-19, doubled in the fortnight up to October 23.
ONS data showed that a total of 211 care home residents died with the disease in the most recent week, compared to 105 deaths in the week to October 9.
Care homes faced devastation in the first wave of coronavirus when more than 10,000 residents were killed by the virus which spread among the vulnerable and often elderly people living in the homes. Testing was too scarce to stop the virus and scientists found that residents tended not to show typical symptoms as often.
Campaign groups have urged the Health Secretary not to suspend care home visits during the second lockdown for fear isolation deteriorates residents' health further. But the fact the virus appears to be resurging in the sector will likely make ministers more hesitant to green-light the move.
Meanwhile, there are sill 1,000 excess deaths happening in England and Wales every week, which is presumed to be a knock-on consequence of the pandemic.
The ONS found the majority were deaths that occurred in people's houses. Experts say shutting down NHS services and delaying treatments during the first lockdown is still having deadly effects on the nation's health.
'Admissions are flatlining and, in effect, deaths are starting to flatline so there will be an update, I hope, on this system tomorrow on Wednesday that will give us a clear understanding of where we're going.
'Also today ONS will be reporting on excess deaths, so the next 24 hours will give much more useful information that should inform whether a lockdown should occur or not.'
On his use of the word flatline for hospital admissions, Professor Heneghan said: 'So one of the things about hospital admissions is it doesn't take into account discharges, it also doesn't tell you who that person is, for instance everybody going into hospital is being tested.
'If you look at the patients in hospital data, that's a much more useful measure and if you look at that on the 31st October it was 9,213 and it actually dropped for the first time on 1st November to 9,077 by about 130 patients.
'That's the first drop in over a month on that data set. So I would look at patients in hospital, not the number being actually admitted which is very variable and quite noisy in what its context is.'
Professor Heneghan explained that the now-infamous 4,000 deaths per day graph shown on Saturday was based on data that was weeks out of date.
It was using a model based on the projection that there would be 1,000 deaths per day by now, the start of November. In reality the daily average is lower than 200.
In example of how the outbreak is slowing down in places with tough lockdown rules, Professor Heneghan pointed to Liverpool.
Liverpool, which is in a Tier Three local lockdown is one of the worst-hit parts of the country, with hospitals in the city facing more patients than they did in coronavirus's first wave in March and April and the region's ambulance service last night declaring a 'major incident' and warning of serious delays.
Professor Heneghan said the R value in Liverpool is 'well below one at this moment in time'. He said there is a problem in the city but cases have halved and hospital admissions have 'stabilised'.
He continued: 'What you've got is these pockets around the country where trusts like Liverpool have got into trouble with over half the patients being Covid patients.
'But again, let's look at the data, the data in Liverpool is showing cases have come down by about half.
'Admissions have now stabilised so, yes, there is a problem in Liverpool but actually the Tier restriction, the people in Liverpool have dropped cases from about 490 a day to 260 a day.'
Boris Johnson leads a Cabinet meeting in London this morning
Sir Patrick Vallance and Prof Chris Whitty (left and right with the PM during Saturday's address to the nation) face questions from MPs over the 4,000 deaths a day figure after a backlash from scientists
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 people getting infected with the virus ranging from 35,000 to 96,000 per day, and some casting doubt over doom-laden warnings of a repeat of March's catastrophe.
One of the Office for National Statistics' top Covid-19 analysts last week said cases in England are '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 picking up 22,125 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 that the outbreak is getting worse, but the speed at which this is happening is unclear.
Meanwhile, SAGE last Friday published its weekly estimate of the R rate and said the speed of spread has dropped. The Government's scientific advisers put the ranges for the UK and England at 1.1 to 1.3, down from 1.2 to 1.4 last week. They said, however: 'SAGE is almost certain that the epidemic continues to grow rapidly across the country.'
Numbers of people being admitted to hospital and dying of coronavirus continue to rise rapidly, with an average of 230 deaths per day now being announced and 10,308 people in hospital with Covid-19, increasing by more than 1,000 per day.
These will keep increasing for the coming weeks and months even if cases start to slow down or even fall, officials say, because hospitalisations and deaths are 'baked in' by infections that happen two to three weeks earlier.
One statistician not involved with any of the predictions - Professor James Naismith, from the University of Oxford - said there were 'uncertainties' in all of them, meaning no one number was correct. He added: 'We can be almost certain that we will see an increase in the number of deaths per day from Covid-19 over the next few weeks.'
Sir Patrick and Professor Whitty are to be dragged before the science and technology select committee this afternoon over claims their graph on Saturday was out of date.
The figures presented by Sir Patrick, who is the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, suggested there could be 4,000 deaths per day by December 20.
But the data from October 9 was produced before the new tier system came into force, which has helped beat back the virus.
Scientists from Oxford University said if the forecasting was correct then there would currently be about 1,000 deaths per day, yet the average over the last week was 265, with yesterday at 136.
The modelling was also based on the R rate being at 1.3 to 1.5 despite the government understanding it to be between 1.1 and 1.3.
Top scientists said the falling infection data could be evidence of England's three-tier lockdown system starting to take effect, by cutting down the speed of growth in the North, raising questions about whether Number 10 jumped the gun with a second national shutdown, which SAGE warned was needed to save Christmas.
It comes as the Prime Minister insisted cases were now surging so high there was 'no alternative' to the month-long blanket restrictions across England. He warned that otherwise the death toll could be double that in the previous peak.
In a statement to the Commons yesterday, he tried to soothe a growing mutiny by reassuring the House that the measures will legally end on December 2 - and if they need to be extended there will be another vote.
But he was roasted by Sir Keir Starmer for wasting weeks refusing to lock down England while the death toll spiralled - before performing an embarrassing U-turn.
Sir Keir said the premier had wasted 40 days when his own scientific experts were urging a 'circuit breaker' - during which time daily deaths had soared from just 11 to 326.
'On September 21 when the Government's scientists Sage recommended an urgent two to three-week circuit break there were 11 deaths from Covid-19 and just over 4,000 Covid infections,' Sir Keir said.
'For 40 days the Prime Minister ignored that advice and when he finally announced a longer and deeper national lockdown on Saturday those figures had increased to 326 deaths a day and 22,000 Covid cases.
'That is the human cost of the Government's inaction. The reality is that the two pillars of the Prime Minister's strategy, the £12billion Track and Trace and regional restrictions have not only failed to stop the second wave, they've been swept away by it.
'At every stage, the Prime Minister has been too slow, behind the curve. At every stage, he has pushed away challenge, ignored advice and put what he hoped would happen above what is happening.
'At every stage, he's over-promised and under-delivered. Rejecting the advice of his own scientists over 40 days was a catastrophic failure of leadership and of judgment.'
The intervention came as Mr Johnson faced the wrath of Conservative MPs enraged by the 'evil' new rules. They have been branded 'unimaginable' and compared to the actions of a 'totalitarian regime.
A crunch vote is due on the lockdown plan tomorrow, with dozens of Tories threatening to oppose the rules. But Sir Keir has said Labour will vote with Government, meaning the lockdown is likely to sail through despite Tory revolt.
Before the statement, Speaker Lindsay Hoyle laid into government leaks that prevented the news being announced to Parliament first. He insisted that the culprit must be identified and if it is an MP they must make a personal apology to the House.
Statistics published this week have produced a wide range of possible daily infections in England, from as few as 34,000, according to an estimate by King's College London to as many as 96,000, according to the Government-run REACT study
In the Commons yesterday, Boris Johnson was roasted by Keir Starmer for wasting weeks refusing to lock down England while the death toll spiralled - before performing an embarrassing U-turn
Hospital bed occupancy this year dropped to its lowest percentage for a decade when medics had to turf out thousands of inpatients to make room for a predicted surge in people with Covid-19. Now that normal care has resumed, a leaked report suggests there are still fewer than average numbers of beds in use
NHS hospitals in England appear quieter than usual for this time of year even though they are treating more than 9,000 patients with coronavirus.
A leaked document claims 84 per cent of all hospital beds were occupied across the country yesterday, which is lower than the 92 per cent recorded during autumn last year.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday sent Britain reeling when he announced a second lockdown and a return to his catchphrase 'stay at home, protect the NHS, save lives'.
But the 84 per cent figure, revealed by the Health Service Journal, suggests that the health service as a whole is not under as much strain as officials imply.
Bed occupancy has not averaged lower than 85 per cent in any normal three-month period for the past decade.
The only exception to this was between April and June this year, when it stood at 64 per cent because hospitals were forced to turf out thousands of non-Covid patients to make space for the epidemic.
Regional differences in the coronavirus outbreak mean some places are feeling more strain than others – one major hospital trust in Liverpool is already be treating more Covid-19 patients than it was in the spring.
Officials are making repeated comparisons to the spring situation as a shorthand for crisis but will not explain how busy hospitals actually are.
Tens of thousands of beds went unused during the peak of the first wave of Covid-19 and officials and officials say the 'available capacity' of