Virus Spreading Exponentially in U.K. for First Time Since March
Commuters cross London Bridge in view of skyscrapers in the City of London square mile financial district in London, U.K. (Photographer: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg)

Virus Spreading Exponentially in U.K. for First Time Since March

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Coronavirus is now spreading rapidly again across the U.K. for the first time since March, prompting new restrictions in Birmingham, the country’s second biggest city.

Government figures put the so-called “R” rate -- the reproduction number that shows how fast the virus multiplies -- between 1.0 and 1.2, driven by a surge in cases among younger people. The virus is spreading exponentially when R is above 1.

A separate study by Imperial College of more than 150,000 people in England estimated the R number as 1.7 and found the virus is now doubling every seven to eight days.

The R value is the number of people that one infected person will pass the virus on to. Government scientists believe the R rate was last above 1 in early March, just before the U.K’s national lockdown.

Virus Spreading Exponentially in U.K. for First Time Since March

Areas with a rising number of cases now face local lockdowns to help prevent the spread of the virus. Residents in Birmingham and the neighboring boroughs of Solihull and Sandwell will be banned from mixing with people outside their own household from next Tuesday, West Midlands mayor Andy Street said.

‘Not Over’

A picture of rising infection rates was confirmed on Friday by a survey led by the Office for National Statistics. Around one in 1,400 people had the virus in the first week of September, with new cases running at around 3,200 a day. The increase was driven by people aged 17 to 34, the survey found.

U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said it underlined the need for people to abide by the law and socialize in groups of no more than six.

“We’ve seen all across the world how a rise in cases, initially among younger people, leads to hospitalizations and fatalities,” he said. “The pandemic is not over, and everyone has a role to play to keep the virus at bay and avoid further restrictions.”

The government also said its delayed contact tracing app will be launched on Sept. 24 in England and Wales. It will allow people to quickly scan QR codes at pubs, restaurants and hairdressers on their smartphones, rather than fill out a form, so they can be easily traced in case of an outbreak.

The Imperial College study in conjunction with Ipsos MORI estimated that 13 people per 10,000 were infected between Aug. 22 and Sept. 7, compared to four people per 10,000 between July. 24 and Aug. 11.

Epidemic Spreading

It said Covid-19 cases were no longer clustering in care homes, as seen in May and June, suggesting the virus is now spread more widely in the community. Infections are increasing across all adult age groups below the age of 65, with higher rates seen in people aged 18 to 24. Infections are highest in Yorkshire and the Humber, the North East and the North West.

“What we are seeing is evidence of an epidemic in the community and not a result of increased testing capacity,” said Paul Elliott, professor of epidemiology at Imperial College.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is under pressure from his own Conservative members of Parliament to rethink the “rule of six” law banning gatherings in England of more than six people, which was unveiled this week.

“It’s time to move to a voluntary system, unless the government can demonstrate otherwise,” former minister Steve Baker told BBC Radio 4 on Friday. “It is time for us to start living like a free people.”

The government’ estimated R rate represents the average situation over the last few weeks, so does not fully reflect any recent changes in transmission that may have been caused by the reopening of schools and more people returning to work.

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