UK COVID-19 Update: Brakes on Easing England's Lockdown

Tim Locke

July 31, 2020

These are the UK coronavirus stories you need to know about today.

Brakes on Easing England's Lockdown

"The idea that we can open up everything and keep the virus under control is clearly wrong." That was the warning from England's CMO and government medical adviser Prof Chris Whitty as the Prime Minister announced delays to some lockdown easing measures in England.

"What we're seeing is that we are at the outer edge of what we can do, and therefore choices will need to be made. But people, I think, are very clear, for example, that schools are an absolute priority for the welfare of children," Prof Whitty said.

With case numbers "creeping up," the PM said there was "a warning light on the dashboard", and that "our assessment is that we should now squeeze that brake pedal in order to keep the virus, under control."

Consequently socialising is now restricted again in parts of Greater Manchester, West Yorkshire, and East Lancashire.

Scotland's First Minister Nicola Sturgeon advised against all but essential travel to the affected areas of the North of England, and said: "If you're returning to Scotland from these parts of the North of England, we are asking you to minimise your contact with people outside of your own household for 14 days after your return."

Further easing of lockdown restrictions in England are postponed by at least a fortnight, and by August 8 face coverings will become mandatory in more public indoor settings, such as cinemas, museums, and places of worship.

"Hands, face, space," became Boris Johnson's latest COVID-19 awareness slogan.

R Number

The UK's R number has risen to 0.8-0.9 and the growth range is -1% to -4%.

England's R number is 0.8-1.0 but is above 1 in some areas:

  • North West     0.8-1.1

  • South West     0.8-1.1

  • East                0.7-1.0

  • London           0.8-1.0

  • Midlands         0.7-0.9

  • NEast&Yorks  0.7-0.9

  • South East      0.8-1.0

Scotland's R is 0.6-0.9.

Wales' R is 0.6-0.90.

Northern Ireland's R is 0.7-1.1.

Shielding Concerns

The BMA responded to the latest announcements in a statement.

BMA chair of council Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: "The Government can bring in measures that affect millions of people with just 3 hours’ notice, but the simple and effective measure of extending the face covering rules in England won’t happen for another 8 days.” 

He continued: "The threat of a second wave is increasing daily and it is sensible that further easing of lockdown has been postponed. What does not make sense is the decision to remove, tomorrow, the protection for thousands of people who have been shielding without them being properly risk assessed and mitigations put in place to reduce their risk of infection, such as medical grade face masks.

“How can it be deemed right for those people to be put at increased risk when on the other hand the Prime Minister says theatres can’t open, concerts can’t go ahead and neither can small wedding celebrations? He’s also encouraging more people to go into their workplaces without offering any real support or clear guidance to either staff or employers if they feel it’s unsafe to do so."
 

Travel Restrictions Do Apply to Health Professionals

Self-isolation travel rules for the general public do also apply to health professionals returning to England, the Government confirmed.

An exemption put in place in June to ensure doctors and other professionals got home to provide essential healthcare has now been removed.

After Spain last weekend, Luxembourg has now been removed from the lower-risk 'travel corridor' list of countries.

A Medscape UK poll this week found 39% of doctors had an overseas holiday booked, and 56% were changing or considering changing those plans.

Overall, 72% of the 284 doctors responding to the poll supported the Government's willingness to introduce travel restrictions at short notice. The number was lower (53%) among those who had holidays booked abroad.

ONS Data

The latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) COVID-19 Infection Survey estimates that around 1 in 1500 people in the community in England (35,700 people) were infected between 20 and 26 July.

There were around 0.78 new COVID-19 infections for every 10,000 people.

Heather Bovill, joint COVID-19 infection survey analysis lead, commented: "Looking at the latest data and using our modelling techniques we now have evidence to suggest that there has recently been an increase in the number of COVID-19 Infections within the community in England.  This is particularly clear when we look at the difference between the lowest recorded estimate on 1 July when we estimated that around 1 in 2000 of this population had COVID-19 compared to the most recent estimate in today’s results of 1 in 1500 individuals."

Separate ONS social impact data show 84% of people wearing a face covering between 22 and 26 July to slow the spread of the coronavirus. During that week face coverings became mandatory in English shops, which may explain the rise from 71% the previous week.

The figure for Scotland, where face coverings have been compulsory in shops for longer, was 97%. In Wales, where face coverings are not needed in shops, it was 58%.

The survey also found 47% of adults were likely or very likely to use an NHS COVID-19 app when it becomes available.

UK Biobank COVID-19 Antibody Study

The UK Biobank COVID-19 antibody study of 20,000 people using home finger pricks tests has found 7.1% of participants had been infected with COVID-19 previously.

No gender differences were found but infection was higher in under 30s (10.8%) than over 70s (5.4%).

Infection was more common in London (10.4%) than the south west of England and Scotland (both 4.4%).
 

Only 45% Understand Lockdown Rules

Only 45% of people in England now have a 'broad understanding' of the current lockdown rules, compared to 90% before restrictions were eased, according to UCL's continuing COVID-19 Social Study involving 70,000 people.

Broad understanding was higher in Scotland (75%) and Wales (61%).

Lead author, Dr Daisy Fancourt, commented: "The general drop-off in understanding could be due to unclear messaging from the Government, or a reduction in interest and engagement from people, especially with the cessation of the daily Downing Street coronavirus briefing in late June."

On access to healthcare, researchers found 1 in 10 people across the UK were unable to see or speak with a GP about their physical health, 1 in 20 were unable to speak to a health professional about mental health, and even when appointments were available, 1 in 5 did not tell a GP about symptoms when they usually would have done.
 

Wales' Latest Lockdown Changes

Wales has confirmed its latest easing of lockdown restrictions.

From Monday, under 11s will no longer have to maintain a 2 metre distance from each other or from adults, and up to 30 people will be able to meet outdoors.
 
Indoor areas of pubs, bars, restaurants, and cafes can also re-open, along with bowling alleys and bingo halls.
 

Northern Ireland's App

Northern Ireland has beaten England to launching a contact tracing mobile phone app using Apple/Google technology.

The 'StopCOVID NI' app can work alongside the Republic of Ireland's app, and should also be compatible with other UK and European systems using the same technology.

Health Minister Robin Swann commented: "Deploying this world leading technology can prove a major factor in helping our efforts to curb Covid-19 and prevent its spread. It’s potential to be a game changer will, however, be totally dependent on the support of the Northern Ireland public."
 

Daily Deaths and Data

Public Health England (PHE) is pausing publication of daily death data after England's Health Secretary Matt Hancock ordered an investigation into its methodology.

However, data are still published on another gov.uk page with 120 UK COVID-19 deaths announced today, taking the total to 46,119.

Another 880 positive cases were reported today taking the total UK confirmed cases to 303,181.

See more global coronavirus updates in Medscape’s Coronavirus Resource Centre.

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