‘Don’t kill your gran’ by spreading Covid-19, Hancock urges youth

‘Don’t kill your gran’, Matt Hancock urges young people as he calls on them to stick to social distancing because Covid-19 infections ‘are surging among affluent 17 to 21-year-olds’

  • Yesterday the UK recorded the highest daily Covid-19 cases since May 23 
  • Scientists said the UK may be ‘moving into a period of exponential growth’ 
  • The Health Secretary tempered fears and said cases were not out of control
  • He said most of cases were among the under 25s, especially those aged 17-21

Health Secretary Matt Hancock today told young people ‘Don’t kill your gran’ as he warned coronavirus cases are surging among teenagers and people in their 20s. 

Speaking to young people’s news programme Newsbeat on Radio 1 today, Mr Hancock tried to push the message that young people may not get seriously ill from the coronavirus but they can pass it on to their elderly relatives. 

Yesterday the UK recorded its highest number of daily Covid-19 cases since May after 2,988 were reported in just 24 hours.

The last time the UK’s caseload was this high was May 23 – 15 weeks ago – when 2,959 people tested positive. 

Mr Hancock said on Radio 1: ‘The question is, how much are you willing to risk the lives of yourself and others by breaking the social distancing rules?

‘Don’t kill your gran by catching coronavirus and then passing it on. And you can pass it on before you have had any symptoms at all.’

Mr Hancock said most cases were being driven by under 25s in ‘affluent areas’, while pleading with them to continue social distancing to avoid passing the virus onto their grandparents.  

Downing Street warned the ‘concerning’ number of cases would generally be expected to lead to a rise across the population as a whole. 

Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth called the spike in cases ‘deeply concerning and worrying’ and suggests there is a real increase in the prevalence of the coronavirus.

He also demanded Mr Hancock give an urgent statement to the House of Commons to explain the testing ‘fiasco’ in which some people are still being told by the NHS test booking site to drive hundreds of miles to get a test. 

Scientists have previously said cases have risen over August as a result of increased testing in hotspots. The more testing is done, the more cases are found.

But the data suggests more people are actually catching the coronavirus, and it’s not just due to more testing.

The number of people who receive a ‘positive’ result after getting tested has gone up by 50 per cent in six weeks – from 1.4 per cent in mid-July to 2.3 per cent now – proving the prevalence is on an upward trend.

However on a positive note, a larger proportion of cases are being detected now compared to March and April – when testing was just limited to hospitals and the very sick and millions went untested. 

A daily 3,000 cases is less of a concern now compared to the height of the pandemic, when it was clear diagnosed cases were only the tip of the iceberg.  

The UK recorded its highest number of daily Covid-19 cases since May after 2,988 were reported in just 24 hours

The UK recorded its highest number of daily Covid-19 cases since May after 2,988 were reported in just 24 hours

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said  the uptick in cases in the past few days have been in younger people under 25, 'especially 17 to 21 year olds'. Pictured is the raw data for new cases in each age bracket over August, showing females aged 20 to 30 make up the majority of cases

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said  the uptick in cases in the past few days have been in younger people under 25, ‘especially 17 to 21 year olds’. Pictured is the raw data for new cases in each age bracket over August, showing females aged 20 to 30 make up the majority of cases 

Scientists have previously said cases have risen over August as a result of increased testing (pictured, how testing has risen during the pandemic)

Scientists have previously said cases have risen over August as a result of increased testing (pictured, how testing has risen during the pandemic) 

But the number of people who receive a 'positive' result after getting tested under Pillar 2 has increased in recent weeks (blue line) to 2.3 per cent. It's also increased under Pillar 2 (red line), but is nowhere near the levels seen at the height of the pandemic

But the number of people who receive a ‘positive’ result after getting tested under Pillar 2 has increased in recent weeks (blue line) to 2.3 per cent. It’s also increased under Pillar 2 (red line), but is nowhere near the levels seen at the height of the pandemic

The graph shows how new Covid-19 cases are rising in the UK, but the 'positivity rate' is dramatically lower now compared to the height of the pandemic, when it was more than 20 per cent overall

The graph shows how new Covid-19 cases are rising in the UK, but the ‘positivity rate’ is dramatically lower now compared to the height of the pandemic, when it was more than 20 per cent overall

The escalating Covid-19 cases in the UK follows the same trends in France and Spain, and the releasing of several lockdown restrictions.  

Speaking on LBC radio this morning, Mr Hancock said: ‘This rise in case we have seen in the last few days is concerning, and it’s concerning because we have seen a rise in cases in France, Spain and some other countries in Europe.

‘Nobody wants to see a second wave here. It just reinforces the point that people must follow the social distancing rules, they are so important.’ 

Asked by presenter Nick Ferrari if the UK had ‘lost control’, as suggested by some experts, Mr Hancock said: ‘No, but the whole country needs to follow social distancing. 

‘We certainly see cases where they are not, then we take action.

‘For example in Bolton where numbers are the highest, we traced a lot of those cases back to an individual pub and we have taken action on those pub. The pub needed to close and sort the problem out.’ 

HOW DOES TESTING AFFECT CASE NUMBERS?

If more people are being tested for Covid-19, this will show up in cases data, experts say. On the surface, it may look like a spike in infections, but broadly is not something to worry about because it just means more people are being diagnosed than before, when testing was limited to those in hospital.

Professor Kevin McConway, an emeritus professor of applied statistics, The Open University, said: ‘In the early stages of the pandemic, there was far less availability of testing in most countries than there now is. So one reason there are more cases is just that people have got better at looking for and finding them.’

And Dr Andrew Preston, a reader in microbial pathogenesis at University of Bath, said: Test more people, you will find more positives.

‘Initially, testing was restricted to those reporting symptoms, but this has eased and it’s now possible for a wider range of people to request tests.’ 

Testing capacity has rapidly increased over the course of the pandemic in order to reach more people. And this has caused a slight increase in the number of people getting a positive result – but not to levels that suggest prevalence of the virus is soaring. 

A significantly higher number of people are being tested since July – when diagnosed cases were at their lowest, NHS Test and Trace data shows.

Some 442,392 people were tested between 13 August and 19 August – an almost 20 per cent increase on the 355,597 tested between July 9 and 15.

However, the positive result rate only slightly went up, from 1.12 per cent to 1.4 per cent in the same period. This shows there no that many more people testing positive compared to negative in August than in July.

Other data from Public Health England reveals a similar trend over the course of the pandemic. 

Testing has increased vastly from no more than 13,000 tests per day at the start of April to around 150,000 in July. 

During the same period, positive test results in Pillar 2 – which are those outside of hospitals and care homes –  went drastically down from a peak of 5.2 per cent in May to 1.4 per cent in mid-July, showing that less people were testing positive for the coronavirus despite testing reaching thousands more people.

This figure has risen slightly over this month from 1.6 per cent to 2.1 per cent in the week ending August 23. But it’s a small increase when comparing with the 5 per cent seen in May. Testing has shot up to almost 200,000 per day this month.

Commenting on these figures, Dr Duncan Young, a professor of intensive care medicine at University of Oxford, told MailOnline: ‘It is therefore very possible that the increase in cases is mostly related to increased testing, but will a small additional effect from the increased prevalence.’

Despite this, it doesn’t necessarily rule out that transmission of the disease is, indeed, climbing. 

Scientists admit that the evident rise in cases will be driven by more transmission in the community as a result of easing lockdown restrictions. 

‘But the position isn’t like it was back in March and April,’ Professor McConway said. 

‘The level of cases [in the UK] remains a very long way below what it was at the peak of the pandemic here in March and April.

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Mr Hancock said the most important point to get across was that the uptick in cases in the past few days have been in younger people under 25, ‘especially 17 to 21 year olds’. 

Data from Public Health England shows 21.9 people per 100,000 aged 15 to 44 got diagnosed with Covid-19 in the week to August 30. It’s more than four times the rate in those aged between 65 and 85 years old. 

It’s a vastly different picture compared to mid-April, when some 200 over 85s per 100,000 had were diagnosed with the virus compared to less than 50 in the 15-44 age group. 

Some scientists say the rise in cases among the young is not something to be concerned about, and was inevitable given that people of working age are returning to work and are allowed to socialise again.

But Mr Hancock remains concerned infections will soon begin spilling into the older generations – even if the data at the moment does not suggest this is happening.  

Mr Hancock said: ‘The message to all your younger listeners [on LBC] and everybody is that even though you are at a lower risk of dying from the coronavirus,  if you’re that age, if you’re under 25, you can still have really serious symptoms and consequences.

‘And Long Covid, where people six months on are still ill, is prevalent among that population. Also, you can infect other people.

‘And this argument that some people come out with, saying “you don’t need to worry about a rise in cases because it’s younger people and they don’t die”.

‘Firstly, they can get very very ill. And secondly, inevitably it leads to older people catching it from them. So don’t infect your grandparents.’ 

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘The rise in the number of cases is concerning and it is predominantly among young people.

‘Generally a rise in cases among younger people leads to a rise across the population as a whole.

‘That’s why it is so important that people maintain social distancing and don’t allow this illness to infect older generations.’ 

And medical director at Public Health England, Yvonne Doyle, added: ‘What we don’t want to see is a continuing increase of cases in this age group because it could lead to them infecting their parents and grandparents who are much more at risk of poor outcomes from the virus.

‘It is vital that they follow social distancing rules, wash their hands regularly and wear a face covering in enclosed spaces.’ 

There has been speculation that most new cases are found among poorer communities, where there is overcrowding in housing and people in key worker jobs, for example.

Professor Gabriel Scally, a former NHS regional director of public health for the South West, claimed the virus is now ‘endemic in our poorest communities’.

While Labour’s shadow health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said many of England’s hotspot areas ‘tend to be poorer areas, where there is overcrowded, multigenerational housing, probably low paid jobs perhaps in food factories’.

However, Mr Hancock said it was currently more frequent in ‘affluent areas’, after various health chiefs have noted spread is predominantly happening when people socially mix in other people’s homes. 

He said: ‘Over the summer we had particular problems in some of the areas that are most deprived. Actually, the recent increase we’ve seen over the last few days is more broadly spread and is not concentrated in poorer areas.

‘It’s actually amongst more affluent younger people especially that we’ve seen the rise.

‘And that is where people really need to hear this message and abide by it – which is that everybody has a responsibility for social distancing to keep themselves safe and to keep others safe.’ 

Dr Simon Clarke, an associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, warned of using young people as ‘scapegoats’.

He told MailOnline: ‘While data do indicate that infections are occurring mainly in a young age demographic, I know of no evidence to suggest that large numbers of younger people are breaking any rules and they shouldn’t be used as easy scapegoats. 

‘It’s just as possible that the current control regulations are insufficient or inappropriate for the way younger people lead their lives. 

‘Greater clarity is needed here before blame is laid or fingers pointed.’ 

Richard Horton, Editor-in-Chief of prestigious medical journal The Lancet, said it was clear a new strategy was needed.

He wrote on Twitter today: ‘The UK now stands on the edge of a COVID-19 precipice. Aside from the need to rethink testing strategies, clear, more frequent, and firmer messaging about behaviours to reduce risks of community transmission is urgently needed. Communication is key, but is failing spectacularly.’  

Health Secretary Mr Hancock tempered fears today and said cases were not out of control, while admitting cases were 'concerning' because 'nobody wants a second wave'. He is pictured during the interview today on LBC radio

Health Secretary Mr Hancock tempered fears today and said cases were not out of control, while admitting cases were ‘concerning’ because ‘nobody wants a second wave’. He is pictured during the interview today on LBC radio

It comes after Professor Gabriel Scally, a former NHS regional director of public health for the south-west, said the government had ‘lost control of the virus’.

He told The Guardian: ‘They’ve lost control of the virus. It’s no longer small outbreaks they can stamp on. 

‘It’s become endemic in our poorest communities and this is the result. It’s extraordinarily worrying when schools are opening and universities are going to be going back.’

Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said he feared the outbreak was a ‘return to exponential growth’, and if so ‘we can expect further increases over coming weeks.’ 

He said yesterday: ‘Today’s reported number of cases is the largest new cases reported in a single day since May. This is especially concerning for a Sunday when report numbers are generally lower than most other days of the week.

‘Some of that increase may be because of catch up from delayed tests over the past few days due to the widely reported difficulties the UK testing service has faced dealing with the number of tests being requested. 

‘Nevertheless this represents a marked increase in the seven-day rolling average of 1,812 case per day compared to 1,244 a week ago and 1,040 a week before that.’ 

A slew of scientists have suggested the rising cases come down to more testing in England’s hardest hit locations, particularly in the north-west. 

They said last week that if more people are tested, there will inevitably be more infections detected, which on the surface suggests the coronavirus is spreading more, even if that is not the case. 

The vast majority of cases were missed at the height of the UK outbreak because testing was limited to hospitals, whereas now anyone is able to get a test. 

But Dr Clarke warned this was a dangerous way to look at that figures as it risks undermining the spread of the virus.

He told MailOnline: ‘It’s quite wrong to simply write off the increased number of coronavirus infections as a function of increased numbers of tests, that would be a false comparison. 

‘As things stand, the important Test & Trace system seems to be focused on areas with high numbers of diagnoses, but if the virus spreads across the country, this will need to change and it remains to be seen how well it will cope with that.’ 

Data now suggests a higher number of people are, in fact, getting infected. Of those people being tested, a higher proportion are getting a positive result – called the test positivity rate. 

In the week to August 30, 2.3 per cent of people under Pillar 2, which is anywhere outside hospitals and care homes, who had a coronavirus test got a positive result – the highest since June 21 and a 0.2 per cent increase on the week prior.

IS SOCIAL DISTANCING MAKING THE VIRUS WEAKER? 

Experts believe coronavirus spreading in lower doses is keeping death tolls and hospital admissions low but daily case totals high.

Social distancing measures mean an infected person would only be able to pass on traces of Covid-19 to another person, therefore the virus’s ‘infectious dose’ is lower.

Because the newly-infected person would have a smaller amount of the virus, their symptoms would not be as serious – in a similar manner to chicken pox.

While this would explain why a rise in cases has not lead to a rise in deaths, doctors have stressed that not enough is known about Covid-19 to determine whether it is dose-dependent. 

But other viruses, including SARS and MERS – the coronaviruses behind two previous pandemic outbreaks – follow this pattern. 

Cases of Covid-19 have been slowly creeping up in the UK since early July.

This may seem alarming, but it has not corresponded with an increase in the number of people dying from the virus.

Dr Elisabetta Groppelli, a virologist at St George’s University of London, said: ‘If you are exposed to a smaller amount of virus, fewer cells in your body get infected, so there’s time for your immune system to mount a response.

‘If you get lots of cells infected at once, you are already starting on the back foot.

‘There is not particularly solid data for Covid-19 at the moment, but it’s logical.’

Many comparisons have been drawn between Covid-19 and the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.

A dose-dependent theory would offer an explanation for what happened then, too.

A 2010 analysis showed the second wave hit poorer communities living in more crowded conditions. They got bigger infectious doses, and many thousands died.

Dr Groppelli added: ‘Age and other illnesses play a huge role. But if I had to be infected with this coronavirus, I’d like the smallest dose possible because that would mean a higher chance of my body getting the infection under control.’

Professor Wendy Barclay, who’s head of the Department of Infectious Disease at Imperial College London, added: ‘It’s all about the size of the armies on each side of the battle,’ she says.

‘A very large virus army is difficult for our immune system’s army to fight off.

‘So standing further away from someone when they breathe or cough likely means fewer virus particles reach you, and then you get infected with a lower dose and get less ill.’

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It hit a record low in the week to July 19, when 1.4 per cent tested positive, and has been rising steadily since.

It’s nowhere near the 5.2 per cent reported in May – when records of ‘test positivity’ began – but represents an increase of 50 per cent in six weeks.

The data, from Public Health England, also shows test positivity has increased under Pillar 1, which is hospitals and care homes. It went up from a low of 0.4 per cent on August 2 to 0.6 per cent in the week to August 30.  

The highest was in the week to April 5, when 44 per cent of patients tested got a positive result back. 

Asked whether the record numbers of cases were due to testing, Mr Hancock said: ‘There is a degree of that. 

‘But we also check what we call the test positivity – so both the number of cases we find, but also the proportion of people who test positive. That is going up as well.’

Figures show those aged 15 to 44 have the highest positivity rate of all ages. 

Three per cent of men and 2.5 per cent of women tested in the community (Pillar 2) get a positive result back, compared to 1.6 and 1.3 per cent, respectively, in the 75 to 84 year olds. 

The older generations aren’t even testing positive more often in hospitals (Pillar 1), with a similar positivity rate across all ages.     

Professor Hunter told MailOnline that the recent surge in coronavirus cases had come a bit earlier than he was expecting.

‘Normally coronaviruses hit in November, December time,’ he said. ‘This has come back sooner than I had anticipated.’

‘There was a report that went out to local authorities basically putting the peak at January. I think that’s probably right. Certainly December-January for the peak (but with fewer deaths).’  

Labour’s shadow health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said yesterday’s caseload was ‘deeply concerning’ and ‘deeply worrying’.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning, he said: ‘It’s one days’ worth of data so we will have to see what the trend is. But that days’ worth of data is alarming, there is no question about it. It does suggest there is an increase in the virus.’

Mr Ashworth has called on Mr Hancock to go to parliament today to explain the testing ‘fiasco’ that has emerged in recent days.

People with coronavirus symptoms who try to book a test online have reported being told to drive three hours to reach their ‘nearest’ centre.

And some of them have had to drive past closer testing centres on their way to the farther ones because of a flaw in the Government’s booking system.  

Test and trace boss Dido Harding installed a 75-mile limit on travelling to appointments on Friday after it was revealed some patients were being asked to drive almost 300 miles.  

It’s been suggested fixing this flaw is the reason behind the surge in cases, as more people are now being told they can access a test nearby.

Mr Ashworth said: ‘I think the key ask of the government is, what is happening with testing? 

‘Because we’ve had all these stories in recent days of people trying to book a test, people who are ill, they are sick, they think they’ve got symptoms of Covid, and they’ve been told to travel miles and miles, sometimes over 100 miles to get to a testing centre. That is clearly unacceptable. 

‘So we are asking the Government, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, to come to the commons quickly. Tell us what they think is happening with the infection rate today, and tell us what he is going to do to fix the fiasco in testing in recent days.’   

The surge in cases has not been evident in hospitalisations or deaths in the UK, further evidence the coronavirus is mostly affecting the younger generations. 

On May 23, the last time daily new cases were as high as they are now, 220 people died from Covid-19. But yesterday’s death toll was significantly smaller. A further two people died after testing positive for the bug in the 28 days prior.

Professor Hunter said: ‘Fortunately, the daily reported numbers of deaths due to Covid-19 remain very low with a seven day rolling average of just seven deaths per day. 

A further two people died after testing positive for the bug today, bringing the UK's total death toll to 41,551

A further two people died after testing positive for the bug today, bringing the UK’s total death toll to 41,551

‘However, with the new approach to recording deaths it is difficult to be confident that there are timely statistics. It with be another two or even more weeks before we can really expect to see any impact on mortality figures.’ 

One scientist believes a rise in hospitalisations will be expected, but deaths will not follow due to better treatments.  

Devi Sridhar, chair of global public health at the University of Edinburgh, told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: ‘We have better treatments and doctors have better clinical ways of managing patients and have learned how to improve survival.

‘The good news is I think deaths will continue to fall but I think hospitalisations will continue to be challenging if these numbers continue and restrictions aren’t brought in place to try to bring it under control.’

Other data suggests Britain’s coronavirus crisis is not getting worse, with the Office for National Statistics reassuring on Friday that the number of people catching coronavirus in England per day remains stable.

Surveillance swabbing suggests 2,000 per day are getting – down 200 from the previous Friday, when the prediction sat at 2,200.

Some 27,100 people in England are thought to be infected at any one time – 0.05 per cent of the population or one in every 2,000 people. This total is a decrease of four per cent from the 28,200 estimate last week. 

Statisticians at ONS said: ‘Evidence suggests that the incidence rate for England remains unchanged.’

Mr Hancock said the ONS figures prove the NHS Test and Trace system is working, despite it being constantly criticised for failing to reach targets. The scheme tracks down close contacts of Covid-19 cases and tells them to self isolate in order to stop transmission. 

He said: ‘Today’s ONS data shows NHS Test and Trace and our local restrictions approach, in partnership with local areas, is working to contain the virus and is supporting the country to safely return to normal.’

Meanwhile, Government experts said Friday they think the UK’s growth rate –  how the number of new cases is changing day-by-day – is between -1% and +2%.

Like the R rate, the growth rate is a tool to keep track of the virus. If it is greater than zero, and therefore positive, then the disease will grow, and if the growth rate is less than zero, then the disease will shrink. 

The value is shown as a range. Because it is +2%, it suggests that a small increasing rate of cases is slightly more likely than a slow fall. 

Last week’s growth rate interval was from -2% to +1% per day, so the interval has moved up by a small amount in the direction of increasing cases, rather than decreasing. But the estimates have a high degree of uncertainty. 

The R – the average number of people each virus patient infects – needs to stay below one or the outbreak could start to grow exponentially. 

But SAGE estimates it is still hovering between 0.9 and 1.1, having remained unchanged from last week. However, the UK’s low infection rate means small outbreaks can skew the estimate upwards. 

Mr Hancock’s previous warnings that the UK was on the same path as France and Spain to a ‘second wave’ was met with disagreement from scientists.

The Health Secretary on Tuesday warned that the UK ‘must do everything in our power’ to stop a second surge of people going into hospital with the coronavirus, which he said was starting to happen in Europe.  

But experts told MailOnline Mr Hancock’s comments were ‘alarmist’ and that there is currently ‘no sign’ of a second wave coming over the horizon. 

The data shows hospital cases are also not rising by much in Europe, contrary to the Health Secretary’s claim, and the reason hospital admissions have not risen in the UK with diagnosed cases ‘simply reflects increased testing’. 

Scientists say it is younger people driving up infections and they are less likely to get seriously ill and end up in hospital. For that reason, hospital cases and deaths will not necessarily follow higher cases, and there may not be a deadly wave like the first.   

Professor Carl Heneghan, a medicine expert at the University of Oxford, said: ‘There is currently no second wave. What we are seeing is a sharp rise in the number of healthy people who are carrying the virus, but exhibiting no symptoms. Almost all of them are young. They are being spotted because – finally – a comprehensive system of national test and trace is in place.’ 

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