England’s chief medical officer is to urge the public to “act like you’ve got it” in a major Covid information campaign as the daily reported death toll hit a record high and is not expected to ease for at least a month.
Amid growing concern in government over compliance with lockdown rules, Chris Whitty will be the face of adverts on radio, TV and social media from Friday evening. Urging people to behave as cautiously as if they are already infected, he said: “Covid-19, especially the new variant, is spreading quickly across the country. This puts many people at risk of serious disease and is placing a lot of pressure on our NHS.”
Boris Johnson said: “Our hospitals are under more pressure than at any other time since the start of the pandemic, and infection rates across the entire country continue to soar at an alarming rate. I know the last year has taken its toll – but your compliance is now more vital than ever.”
On Friday, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) pointed to data that showed the rapid increase in hospital admissions. On 1 September, there were fewer than 500 Covid patients in hospitals in England, rising to about 9,000 on 1 November and 17,701 on Christmas Day. By 7 January there were 28,246 inpatients – up more than 11,000 in under two weeks.
Deaths recorded within 30 days of a positive Covid test reached 1,325 on Friday, though some may have occurred on different days. With new cases continuing to rise – also to a new record of 68,053 – government insiders are privately warning it could be mid-February before the death rate has peaked and declines significantly, as vaccinations reach more of those people most at risk.
One member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) told the Guardian: “Even if we vaccinated all over-80s today we would not see a change in the death rates for five weeks or so, and it will not impact on hospitalisation for a long time afterwards (when the over-60s have been vaccinated). It is impossible to overemphasise the seriousness of the current situation. We are in a much worse position than we were in March.”
If public compliance with new national lockdown rules is not strong enough, government experts fear death rates may plateau rather than dropping sharply as they did after last year’s lockdown. It could mean strict measures remaining in place for longer.
A DHSC source said: “Compliance is the big thing, and it’s important that people realise it’s not just egregious raves or parties – it’s individual, small acts that add up to a big impact.”
Johnson announced the new shutdown in a broadcast message on Monday evening, closing schools to most pupils just a day after they had reopened following the Christmas break.
But Downing Street fears the message has not hit home with a public weary of being trapped in their homes. A source said: “Anecdotally, and looking at some of the data, there are concerns that this is being treated like the November lockdown, rather than the March lockdown.”
Headteachers are reporting much higher school attendance than during last spring’s lockdown. A survey by the Teacher Tapp app found that one in six English primary schools reported 30% or more of their normal number of pupils in classrooms this week.
Nationally the figures would equate to more than 2,500 primary schools in England with a third or more of their pupils in their classrooms. More than 300 of those schools said at least half of all their pupils attended in person.
Meanwhile transport data for London showed that bus use was at 30% of normal levels on Friday morning and tube journeys at 18% of normal.
Many critical workers rely on public transport but the figures were much higher than those seen in mid-April last year, when tube use was just 4-6% of normal, and bus use 10-20%.
Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, declared a “major incident” at lunchtime on Friday amid fears the NHS in the capital could be overwhelmed. More than two-thirds of London’s acute NHS trusts are treating more patients now than at the height of the first wave, according to official figures.