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The coronavirus infection rate – the so-called “R number” – could be as high as one, raising the spectre of a second peak of the disease in the UK.
Deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries unveiled the R rate was now between 0.7 and 1, adding that anything above 1 could see the virus spread rapidly.
Top scientists mapping the disease’s spread, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, have calculated the new estimate.
“We want to keep this below 1,” said Harries. “R is the average number of additional people infected.
“So while it’s 1, a pandemic, an epidemic, in this country will stay flat.
“If it starts to go above that number we will start to see an increasing number of cases and we may experience a second peak.
“It’s really important that we keep monitoring it.”
She added, however, that the figure included “quite a range” and was an estimate of R.
The number, which is being officially published for the first time, is thought to include all cases within care homes.
It follows prime minister Boris Johnson’s decision to begin easing the lockdown.
Health secretary Matt Hancock, meanwhile, confirmed that the R number estimate could be around two weeks old due to data lags from institutions such as the Office for National Statistics.
He said, however, he was confident that the R rate was not above 1.
“We are constantly keeping the R under review. We don’t think that it is above one. So that meets that test,” he said, when asked if the R rate was a useful metric.
“It is an incredibly important figure for policymakers but it is one data point to look at alongside the level of new cases.”
Harries added: “Partly because a number of different models are used to model this data and it’s important that they challenge each other and that we get the consistency of that.
“Partly, the data comes from historic data. Obviously we can’t predict precisely so we’re estimating it on different sources of information – so things like hospital admissions that have happened historically.
“And then I think, thirdly, importantly, we know that we have slightly different ‘R’ values relating to some areas of risks.
“So obviously in recent weeks, care homes have been heightened interest, hospitals also and we keep an eye on those. So this is very much a national average.”
Hancock, who appeared alongside Harries at the Downing Street press conference on Friday, said the government was aiming to test all people and staff in care homes by early June.
Health chiefs confirmed on Friday that the number of people who have died in the UK after testing positive for coronavirus rose to 33,998 – an increase of 384 over 24 hours.
It came as it emerged that the government was set to miss its target for hiring 18,000 contact tracers by mid-May.
Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis said 15,000 “have applied” and that earlier in the week just 1,500 were in post.
Downing Street insisted the government was “on course” to recruit the promised number, however.
The prime minister’s official spokesperson said his team would meet the target by the “week commencing” next Monday.