Great Britain

'This is a big moment:' UK government cautions on virus

Fresh restrictions on social gatherings in England, potentially involving limiting pub opening hours, appear to be on the cards soon as the British government seeks to suppress a sharp spike in new coronavirus infections.

British Health Secretary Matt Hancock said Friday that the country has to “come together” over the coming weeks to get on top of the spike. He said the new transmissions are largely taking place in social settings and are already leading to a doubling in the number of people being hospitalized with the virus every seven to eight days.

“We want to avoid a national lockdown altogether, that is the last line of defense,” he told BBC radio. “It is not the proposal that’s on the table.”

Following days of criticism over its testing strategy, there is mounting speculation that the government will announce fresh curbs on the hospitality sector, such as pubs and restaurants, potentially involving curfews — something that has already been put in place in areas under local lockdown restrictions.

According to the BBC, the British government's chief scientific adviser and medical officer have warned of another serious coronavirus outbreak and many more deaths by the end of October if there were no further interventions soon. Possible measures being considered under this so-called “circuit break” are asking some hospitality businesses to close, or limiting opening hours, for a period — potentially two weeks.

The testing that is being conducted has already seen a sharp increase in cases over the past couple of weeks that have raised fears that the country with Europe's deadliest coronavirus outbreak may be in for a second wave during the winter. Critics say it has lost control of the virus and that’s why new measures are being introduced.

Already this week, a ban on social gatherings of more than six people, including children, has come into effect for England. The other nations of the U.K. — Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — have announced similar clampdowns on meetings. And there are several areas across the U.K. that are living under localized restrictions.

Tougher restrictions on people and businesses were also announced Friday for parts of the northwest of England, the West Midlands and west Yorkshire. And in a sign that the virus is here to stay through the winter, the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, cancelled the annual fireworks display on the River Thames.

The latest daily figures show that another 3,395 new confirmed cases were reported. That down on the previous day’s 3,991, the seven-day average is around double the level a couple of weeks back.

As the experience of the pandemic has shown, there's usually a lag of a week or two between a rise in cases and hospitalizations and then a subsequent lag for deaths.

It's clear that the increase in cases is leading to a higher number of people requiring acute care. The number of patients being treated for the disease in hospitals in England increased to 894 on Wednesday, up from 472 on Sept. 1, according to the latest government statistics. The number of hospitalized patients on ventilators rose to 107 from 59 in the same period.

The worry is that deaths will start to increase markedly in the days and weeks ahead. Though the U.K. is recording far fewer deaths on a daily basis than it did earlier this year, it still registered another 21 on Thursday, taking the total of those having died 28 days after testing positive for COVID-10 to 41,705.

“This is a big moment for the country," Hancock said. “We are seeing an acceleration in the number of cases and we are also seeing that the number of people hospitalized with coronavirus is doubling every eight days.”

The government's strategy over the coming weeks, he said, is to contain the virus down as much as is possible whilst ensuring schools and workplaces remain open.

"And doing everything we possibly can for the cavalry that’s on the horizon of the vaccine and mass testing, and the treatments that, frankly, this country has done more than any other around the world to develop,” he said.

The sharp spike in cases, coupled with the testing woes that have seen people around the U.K. complaining they have been unable to book appointments for tests or directed to testing centers far from their homes, has escalated talk of another national lockdown along the lines of the one earlier this year.

Julian Tang, an honorary associate professor in respiratory sciences at the University of Leicester, said the various measures in place or being considered, such as limiting gatherings to six or imposing curfews, can act as a “firebreak" in stopping the spread of the virus to the more susceptible groups of the population.

“But these are all incremental and each on their own or in patchy combinations may not be enough, in which case a full local lockdown may be needed to stop the spread," he added.

Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak

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