Britain must remain in full lockdown until June if it is to avoid the worst effects of the coronavirus, the Government’s leading epidemiologist has warned.
As the virus claimed its 1000th life in the UK - a doubling of the death toll in just three days, Professor Neil Ferguson said in an interview that the entire population could need to stay at home for nearly three months.
Boris Johnson said yesterday that the pandemic crisis “would get worse before it gets better”.
He was forced to conduct a video conference from his study in Number 11 Downing Street after himself testing positive for the virus.
Senior figures in Government have been more optimistic saying restrictions could be eased sooner than June with the peak of the crisis predicted to come in the week of April 12 with 5,700 deaths.
But Prof Ferguson of Imperial College told the Sunday Times: “We are going to have to keep these measures in place, in my view, for a significant period of time - probably until the end of May, maybe even early June. May is optimistic."
He said when the lockdown was lifted people would still probably be asked to enforce some social distancing for months more.
That could mean schools and universities not reopening until the Autumn and people told to continue working from home rather than returning to their offices.
The grim diagnosis came after the death toll from coronavirus leapt 260 in a day to reach a total of 1,019 people. More than 17,000 people have tested positive.
To ensure the lockdown works, the government is sending every household a leaflet on what to do and a letter from the prime minister, at a total cost of £5.8 million.
In it, the PM says: "From the start, we have sought to put in the right measures at the right time.
"We will not hesitate to go further if that is what the scientific and medical advice tells us we must do.
"It's important for me to level with you. We know things will get worse before they get better.
"But we are making the right preparations, and the more we all follow the rules, the fewer lives will be lost and the sooner life can return to normal.
"I want to thank everyone who is working flat out to beat the virus, in particular the staff in our fantastic NHS and care sector across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
"It has been truly inspirational to see our doctors, nurses and other carers rise magnificently to the needs of the hour.
"Thousands of retired doctors and nurses are returning to the NHS - and hundreds of thousands of citizens are volunteering to help the most vulnerable.
"That is why, at this moment of national emergency, I urge you, please, to stay at home, protect the NHS and save lives."
Brendan Wren, Professor of Microbial Pathogenesis at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said the report of the further UK deaths "approximates to a person dying every five minutes in our hospitals from Covid-19".
He added: "With the doubling rate of infection every four/five days and the epidemic expected to peak in two/three weeks it is possible that we may get to much higher levels in the coming weeks before we see if the social distancing interventions have an impact.
"Coupled with the observation that the infection can affect all walks of life even without underlying health conditions, this may be a sobering thought for any of the population flouting hygiene measures and/or social distancing."