A leaked scientific report has revealed that 85,000 people could die of coronavirus in a second wave lasting until the end of next spring.
The document, believed to have been presented to the prime minister in the summer and obtained by The Spectator magazine, sets out a “worst case planning scenario” for the second wave of COVID-19 in the UK.
The paper, produced in July by the prime minister’s Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (Sage), is not a forecast or a prediction of what will happen.
Instead, it sets out a grim scenario under which 85,000 people could die from Covid between now and April in the UK.
Around 356,000 Covid patients could spend time in hospital with infections peaking at 100,000 a day, the report states.
It comes as major new analysis shows that 100,000 people are catching coronavirus every day in England.
The study, by Imperial College London, says the pace of the epidemic is accelerating and estimates the number of people infected is now doubling every nine days.
The authors say we are at a "critical stage" and "something has to change".
Imperial's React-1 study is highly influential because it is the most up-to-date assessment of Covid-19 in the country, with the last swabs taken only on Sunday and nearly 86,000 volunteers taking part.
A further 24,701 new coronavirus cases were reported on Thursday - but the Imperial College study randomly tests asymptomatic people to estimate the number of overall new infections.
It shows cases are rising in every age group and in every region of England.
While cases are currently highest in the North, infections are surging more rapidly in the South.
A number of scientists are calling for a national lockdown to curb the spread of the virus.
Government scientific adviser Dr Mike Tildesley has said more national restrictions are needed, with the current trajectory likely to put nearly everywhere in Tier 2 before Christmas.
The University of Warwick researcher, who sits on the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We are seeing the R number is greater than 1 everywhere, and in a sense some kind of national lockdown, a circuit-breaker, or something along those lines, would actually have more effect in those parts of the country that have not yet progressed into Tier 2.
“R is greater than 1 everywhere and if we don’t take urgent action we’re most likely to see that as we’re approaching the festive period we’re probably going to be at least in Tier 2 pretty much everywhere in the country.
“So really we need to move away from these regional firefighting techniques to try to move to something more national.”
Steven Riley, professor of infectious disease dynamics at Imperial College London, said the data from the React coronavirus study suggests “we need to think about changing the approach”.
“There’s an overall background change and then for whatever reason, some regions, some geographical areas, are just a little bit ahead, the virus is a little bit better in those communities,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“So it does suggest that we need to think about changing the approach. Because we’re getting to the stage where we have to see prevalence go down.”
When asked if this meant tightening local lockdowns or national restrictions, he said: “I think what our study shows is there would be genuine benefits to some kind of national policy.
“In that we could prevent the pattern in the south turning into the current pattern in the north and bring about a reversal in the north as quickly as possible.”
He added: “If we’re going to end up using those restrictions that have been brought in elsewhere in Europe today and yesterday, if we’re going to do that, we should think about timing. And sooner is better than later for these.”
WHO special envoy Professor David Nabarro said coronavirus is spreading with a surprising ferocity but lockdown restrictions have slowed the spread in the North of the UK.
Discussing the situation in Europe, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “This virus has been picking up extraordinary energy over the last three or four weeks and it is indeed surprising just how ferocious the current surges have become.”
Prof Nabarro said the UK has “apparently been able to slow the spread in some parts of the North of the country through very effective local action”.
“What that’s led to is a sort of levelling up and it seems that southern parts of the UK are speeding up,” he said.