The British Government remains confident that the reproductive rate of coronavirus is still under one, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said, as new figures suggest it has crept up.
The so-called R-number – which is the average number of people that will contract coronavirus from an infected person – is now between 0.7 and 1.0 in England, according to Government scientific advisers.
The rise in the figure is thought to be driven by the virus spreading in care homes and hospitals rather than the wider community, but previous data put it at between 05 and 0.9.
There is a time lag in the calculations, with the latest R value relating to what was happening two to three weeks ago.
Speaking at the Number 10 daily press briefing, Mr Hancock said the R number was an “incredibly important figure”, and it was important to note “we don’t think that it is above one”.
He added: “Everybody can play their part in keeping R below one and pushing R down.
“You can do that by following the social distancing rules, so if you do go outdoors, do it only with members of your household and keep two metres away from others who aren’t in your household.
“And those social distancing rules are incredibly clear, and they will help to keep us safe.
Mr Hancock also told the press conference he supported the phased reopening of primary schools – which has been set for June 1 at the earliest.
It comes after teaching unions said they were unconvinced by the “flimsy” scientific evidence on which the move has been made.
Mr Hancock said: “I wouldn’t support a proposal to reopen schools unless I thought it was safe to do so. It is safe to do so.”
But he stressed there was an “awful lot of work to do in each individual school to make sure that that is done in a way that is safe”.
He said the risk from coronavirus “was much, much lower (for) children than any other age group in society, certainly if you don’t have underlying health conditions”.
Deputy chief medical officer, Dr Jenny Harries said it was important to put the risks in perspective.
She said: “If currently we have, say, two or three in 1,000 of our population with infection, then in the proposed time frame coming forward in the next couple of weeks that’s likely to halve.
“There’s a lot of anxiety I think around this but people need to think through – in an average infant school with 100 children the likelihood of anybody having this disease is very small and diminishing with time, so I think we just need to keep that in perspective.”
Dr Harries also warned of longer-term health risks to children who do not get a good, basic education.
She said: “Children who have been invited back to school are at key points of their education and their longer-term health risks of not getting good, basic education, which then takes them into work, employment in adult life and gives them a prevention opportunity from long-term conditions is really very important.”
Asked about personal protective equipment (PPE) for teachers, Dr Harries suggested treating teacher and pupil groups like families.
She said: “It’s not simply about a bit of kit – it’s actually about how you manage groups.
“So in many ways, managing them more as if you were a family where you wouldn’t think about putting on PPE or handling in different ways, but you keep in those groups, you can distance within a school.”
Mr Hancock also used the briefing to address the crisis in care homes.
He said every resident and staff member will have been tested by early June – despite him saying on April 28 this testing was available.
He also announced a named clinical lead for every care home in England, adding: “This is the most intense support and scrutiny that care homes have ever received.”
In other developments:
– The number of deaths involving Covid-19 in the UK passed 41,000, according to the latest available data.
– Police chiefs and prosecutors apologised after dozens of people were wrongly charged under new coronavirus laws.
– New figures show that more than 12,500 people living in care homes have now died with Covid-19, with the majority dying in their care home.
– The PA news agency has verified at least 150 NHS frontline workers who have died with Covid-19.
– Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford criticised Boris Johnson’s Government for a lack of communication on how Britain moves together out of coronavirus lockdown.
It comes after ministers came under under fresh pressure to ramp up recruitment for the Government’s track-and-trace programme as it emerged that only 1,500 contact tracers out of a promised 18,000 had been appointed by the start of the week.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said while “about 15,000” applications have been received, just 1,500 people had been hired for the programme – which is seen as key to allowing the UK to lift the most stringent coronavirus lockdown measures.
Downing Street later said it was still “on course” to have 18,000 contact tracers next week, and insisted “significantly more” than the 1,500 had been recruited. However, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman was unable to say how many.
Labour said the process was “rapidly descending into a shambles”, and questioned the reported hiring of private firm Serco to put in place the manual contact-tracing team.
Shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Rachel Reeves said: “This is fewer than one in 10 of the contract tracers the Government said would be in place by now and a fraction of the 50,000 some experts believe are needed to control the spread of the virus.”
Meanwhile, signs of regional rebellions to the Government’s approach to easing the lockdown emerged as Liverpool City Council said only the children of key workers and vulnerable children will be allowed in school from June 1.
And the Labour leader of Gateshead Council, Martin Gannon, said his advice continued to be “stay at home” as he called the easing of the lockdown rules “frankly madness”.