Is coronavirus slowing down in the UK? How social distancing measures are working to reduce the spread

Tuesday, 31st March 2020, 4:02 pm
Updated Tuesday, 31st March 2020, 4:03 pm
There are early signs that social distancing measures are working (Photo: Shutterstock)
There are early signs that social distancing measures are working (Photo: Shutterstock)

The UK has been put under a three-week lockdown period with strict social distancing measures in an effort to slow the spread of coronavirus.

While the lockdown has only been in place for a week, the virus outbreak does appear to be “slowing”, a leading scientist and government adviser has said.

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“Early signs of slowing”

Professor Neil Ferguson, who has been studying the coronavirus outbreak, said the data is now showing signs that the strict social distancing measures are beginning to work, despite the number of daily reported deaths still climbing.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, he said: “In the UK we can see some early signs of slowing in some indicators - less so because deaths are lagged by a long time from when measures come into force.

“But we look at the numbers of new hospital admissions today (30 Mar), for instance, that does seem to be slowing down a little bit now.

“It’s not yet plateaued as the numbers are increasing each day, but the rate of that increase has slowed.

“We see similar patterns in a number of European countries.”

Are the lockdown measures working?

Professor Ferguson’s assessment that the UK is showing some signs of the virus slowing down suggests that the lockdown social distancing measures could be effective.

However, he acknowledged that testing would need to significantly increase in order to more accurately show if infection rates were slowing.

Ferguson said that around three to five per cent of people in central London could already have been infected with the virus, with the figure possibly being higher in individual hotspots, while the number of infections across the whole country is likely to be slightly lower at two to three per cent.

He added that the next crucial step is to get the antibody tests, which can determine whether a person has already had the virus, with hopes these could be operational within “days rather than weeks”.

How could testing help slow the virus outbreak?

Coronavirus testing currently involves taking a throat swab from a person and running the results through a machine in a laboratory to test for the virus’s genetic material.

Millions of 15-minute home coronavirus tests are soon due to be available on the high street, or for Amazon delivery to people self-isolating, according to Public Health England (PHE).

The home test involves pricking a finger to produce a drop of blood, which is then analysed on a device which looks like a pregnancy test.

The UK government has already bought 3.5m tests and is ordering millions more.

The tests could prove to be effective in slowing the virus outbreak as they reveal whether a person has already had the virus, and as such are then thought to have some immunity, enabling them to return to work sooner.

Health minister Helen Whately has said the government is hugely increasing testing in hospitals, including of NHS staff, but acknowledged that only 7,000 people were tested on Sunday (29 Mar).

This comes despite claims from Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, and the Health Secretary Matt Hancock, that the number of tests per day is now at 10,000.

The government announced in early March that it would be testing 10,000 people per day, before increasing the target to 25,000.

Whately said that the capacity of 10,000 tests had not yet been reached, and it has taken many weeks to get the tests and laboratories ready for such a volume, meaning many NHS workers are only just starting to get tested.

When will the number of cases peak?

The number of coronavirus cases is predicted to rise for “two to three weeks”, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England, Dr Jenny Harries, has said.

These numbers will then fall if people in the UK follow the guidelines the government has issued during the lockdown.

These include only leaving your home for specific and essential reasons, including infrequent shopping for basic necessities, one form of exercise per day, medical needs, or to go to work, if this cannot be done from home.

Dr Harries said that if such measures are strictly observed, a decline in the number of cases should follow after the initial peak.

She said: “If people have cut down their social interactions, we would start to see a change in the graph.

“The peak will be pushed forward, but the height will be lower and we can manage NHS hospital care safely.”

Why will the number of cases peak over Easter?

The social distancing measures put in place by the government have been designed to “move the peak”, according to Dr Harries.

Health experts initially said the worst of the virus spread would occur between late May and late June, with an estimated 95 per cent of infections predicted in this timeframe.

However, Public Health England (PHE) later showed there would be a slow growth of new coronavirus cases every day, and these cases were expected to spike dramatically.

However, Dr Harries has now said this peak will happen sooner if the public follow the government’s advice to stay at home.

Taking seasonal elements into account, the UK is now predicted to reach a peak number of cases throughout March and April, with slightly warmer temperatures creating the perfect breeding ground for the virus.