Rapidly rising numbers of coronavirus cases will be followed by a “proportionate” spike in deaths in the UK, Boris Johnson has warned as infections reached their highest since May.
Some 3,991 people tested positive across the UK on Tuesday, amid fears that the true figure will be higher because of the unavailability of tests to many of those with Covid symptoms.
And Mr Johnson told MPs that the outbreaks detected among younger people in recent weeks, which have been blamed on a post-lockdown return to socialising, are now spreading into older generations with greater vulnerability to the disease.
Appearing before a House of Commons committee, the prime minister admitted that there was a “very, very pressing need to ramp up our testing system”, which he said was experiencing “huge problems”, with not enough tests available.
But he stuck to his promise that tests would be increased to 500,000 a day by the end of October, and insisted that the UK was testing at a higher rate than any other country in Europe.
He held out the prospect of a “test and release” system where a pregancy-style kit would allow people to check quickly if they are contagious before attending music or sports events. But he backed away from suggestions that his “Operation Moonshot” plan for mass testing could check 10 million people a day next year, saying he “did not recognise” the figure.
Government sources confirmed privately that a new national lockdown was not off the table if there are signs of a second wave growing out of control, though ministers were said to be “exceptionally reluctant” to return to the kind of blanket restrictions seen in the spring.
Mr Johnson said a new national lockdown would be “completely wrong” for the UK and warned that the repercussions would be “disastrous” for the economy.
But he did not rule it out in an appearance before the Commons Liaison Committee, where he told MPs: “What we are seeing is unfortunately the progression of the disease from younger groups, who are much less prone to its worst effects, up into the older groups.
“The incidence among the 80-plus group is now 12 per 100,000 where only a few days ago it was about half that.
“It is growing, and alas – although the number of symptomatic cases is obviously far smaller than it was in the spring – we must expect those infections proportionately to lead to mortality. That is the reality.”
Ministers are pinning their hopes on the new “rule of six” announced by the prime minister last week putting a lid on the dramatic surge which has seen infections rise from around 1,000 a day at the end of August to almost 4,000 now.
A review of the rule is expected within the next fortnight, as the time lag between infection, symptoms and test results makes it impossible to judge its effectiveness in less than two or three weeks.
Whitehall sources said a national lockdown remained a “nuclear option” if cases and deaths continue to rise, but stressed that ministers were keen to maintain the current “whack-a-mole” strategy of targeting local outbreaks.
It is understood this could mean nighttime curfews for areas where outbreaks are linked to pubs and restaurants or measures to limit mingling by students arriving at university for the start of term.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby signalled his concern about the threat to family Christmas celebrations and to vulnerable people like the sick or elderly from the centrally-imposed of the limit of six on the size of social gatherings.
But Mr Johnson defended the rule, and brushed aside suggestions that England should follow Scotland and Wales by exempting under-12s in order to allow larger families a social life.
Labour’s Catherine McKinnell told the PM: “At the moment it is easier for an expectant father to go to the pub or to go grouse shooting than to attend his own baby’s growth scan.”
But Mr Johnson said he would not relax the rules because it was known that Covid could be transmitted from children to adults, even if they are not displaying any symptoms.
“I don’t want a second national lockdown – I think it would be completely wrong for this country and we are going to do everything in our power to prevent it,” he told the committee.
“Can we afford it? I very much doubt that the financial consequences would be anything but disastrous. We have to make sure that we defeat the disease by the means that we have set out.
“So when I see people arguing against the rule of six or saying that the government is coming in too hard on individual liberties and so on – I totally understand that and I sympathise with that, but we must, must defeat this disease.”
Mr Johnson was accused of blaming the public for chaos in the testing system, after he said that cases in which individuals were told to travel hundreds of miles for a test were the result of a “colossal spike” in applications over recent days.
Despite his assurance that the government was triggering a “massive acceleration” in the development of the system, Labour’s Angela Rayner told MPs at prime minister’s questions in the Commons: “Once again we see that the prime minister says it’s somebody else’s fault, that it’s the public that are using up the tests.”
The Labour deputy leader was standing in for the Sir Keir Starmer, who was self-isolating after one of his children showed coronavirus symptoms on Monday and was given a negative test result only minutes before the weekly Commons clash.
She told Mr Johnson: “When you are the prime minister, you can’t keep trying to blame other people for your own incompetence.
“We have the highest death toll in Europe and we are on course for one of the worst recessions in the developed world.
“This winter we are staring down the barrel of a second wave with no plan for the looming crisis.”