UK faces a long winter – but there is still a chance infections spike can be stemmed

For the first time in many weeks, the official measures of the UK’s coronavirus outbreak are all pointing in the wrong direction.

The government says the R number in the UK is between 1.0 and 1.2, meaning it is now definitely above 1 for the first time since March. Scotland’s R could be as high as 1.5.

A large study from Imperial College even suggested that the R was more like 1.7, although like all these figures, there is a good deal of imprecision.

The overall trend, from multiple studies, is the thing to watch: from this, we get the clear message that the virus is now spreading fast, albeit still among small numbers.

This conclusion is confirmed by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) survey, which tests 10,000 households to get a representative sample of the state of the outbreak. Like the R number, its results have jumped significantly.

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Last week the ONS estimated that around 2,000 people a day were being infected. This week that’s up to 3,200, a jump of 60%.

Most importantly, these infections aren’t just in clusters. The epidemic is now spreading across the country. This means it can’t be controlled by Test and Trace alone, but must also be restrained by social distancing – hence the tough new measures the government brought in this week.

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None of this should be surprising: as society opened up after the lockdown, it was inevitable that infections would rise.

Nor should it necessarily be overstated. Imperial College reckon there are around 13 positive people per 10,000. Unless you live in a hotspot, your chances of bumping into someone with coronavirus are still very small.

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The ONS survey also confirms what the Chief Medical Officer said on Wednesday: infections are mainly growing among the young. Hospitalisations and deaths are not rising. For all the talk of second peaks, we are nowhere near where we were in March.

Yet government scientists are worried because they believe that once the virus has started to grow in some areas, and some demographics, it will inevitably spread to more vulnerable groups. They look at the slow rise of deaths in countries like France and see the UK’s future.

They also worry about the months ahead, as the weather worsens and people spend more time inside. We are, these statistics tell us, facing a long winter, with the possibility of severe restrictions constantly looming over us.

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We are acting early, so there is still a chance that this rise can be stemmed before it grows too far.

We might also take inspiration from countries like Italy, which have not experienced the same rise in cases as France and Spain. But the fraught nature of our safety has been laid bare by these statistics.

As our choices get increasingly difficult, we may have to have a very honest and painful public conversation about the level of risk – and loss – we are prepared to accept.

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