The UK could end up being the “worst affected country in Europe” from coronavirus, according to an infectious diseases expert and government adviser.
Sir Jeremy Farrar, who is a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE), admitted the UK could outstrip the death rate seen in other badly-hit countries such as Italy and Spain.
On Friday, it was announced that another 980 people had died in UK hospitals with COVID-19 – a record daily number that exceeded the worst daily figures of any other European country.
SAGE play a key role in advising the government on its coronavirus response and will be providing evidence to ministers this week as they review the current lockdown measures.
Despite expressing hope the UK was coming close to a point when the number of new coronavirus infections was beginning to reduce, Sir Jeremy admitted the country’s death rate could exceed that of other European countries.
“The UK is likely to be certainly one of the worst, if not the worst affected country in Europe,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
Sir Jeremy is director of the Wellcome Trust, which helped found the global Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (CEPI), that is leading efforts to find a COVID-19 vaccine.
He suggested a vaccine might be available this autumn but, until one is available, it was “probably inevitable” that “second and third waves” of coronavirus would occur.
“It is my view that treatment and vaccines are our only true exit strategy from this,” Sir Jeremy said.
SAGE is made up of various different groups of scientists who feed their data into the body in efforts to provide coordinated scientific advice to ministers.
Sky News analysis of the number of coronavirus deaths in Italy, Spain and France suggests the UK is so far experiencing less deaths per 100,000 people than those other countries.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma stressed that “different countries have different cycles” in the spread of coronavirus, as he was challenged about the government’s initial response to the outbreak on Sky News’ Sophy Ridge on Sunday show.
Asked why 70,000 people had been allowed to attend the Cheltenham Festival on 13 March – the same day Italy reported the deaths of 200 more people with coronavirus – Mr Sharma said: “We have followed, Sophy, the scientific and medical advice and we continue to do that.”
However, he suggested the advice being given to ministers had changed as the “situation has evolved”.
Mr Sharma reiterated the government would need to wait until it was certain the peak of the outbreak in the UK had been passed until they could consider ending the lockdown measures.
Newly-elected Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer repeated his call for the government to set out it’s exit strategy from the lockdown.
“We all know the vaccine, which is the end exit strategy, is probably 12 months away,” he told Sophy Ridge on Sunday.
“The question is what happens in that intervening 12 months.
“I’m pushing the government on this because we need to plan for it, we can’t just arrive at it without a plan.”
Former Bank of England governor Lord Mervyn King told the programme that the government should be “very clear about the difficulty of an exit strategy”.
“I don’t think it’s sensible just to tell us all to stay indoors, I think the government can rely on the common sense of people,” he said.
He said an exit strategy would be a “process of trial and error” – suggesting that some social distancing measures could be retained while other lockdown measures are eased.
Enna Park, South Korea’s ambassador to the UK, said her country would remain “vigilant” despite appearing to have been successful in flattening the curve of new coronavirus infections.
She said: “The main lesson we learned is testing is very important.”
Revealing South Korea has so far conducted 500,000 coronavirus tests, Mrs Park added: “Our strategy was test, trace and treat.”
As of Saturday morning, the UK had conducted less than 335,000 coronavirus tests, with the government under pressure to increase the number of daily tests.