Top UK scientists warn coronavirus still growing exponentially

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Scientists advising Boris Johnson’s government said it is “still highly likely that the coronavirus epidemic is growing exponentially across the UK,” even as some recent studies indicate the rate may be slowing.

Official data on Friday put the so-called R number, or the rate at which the virus multiplies, at between 1.3 and 1.6 across the country, up on last week’s estimate of 1.2 to 1.5. That contrasts with a major study from Imperial College London published Thursday suggesting the rate may have fallen to 1.1, from 1.7 in late August and early September.

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“More data are needed to accurately assess any recent changes in transmission, and it is still highly likely that the epidemic is growing exponentially across the country, the Government Office for Science said in an emailed statement. “Over the next few weeks, it will be important that we understand this in the UK and do not become complacent.”

Johnson warned this week he would not hesitate to impose further measures if necessary, to contain the disease, which his chief scientific adviser said isn’t under control in the UK. The government’s strategy is to respond to outbreaks around the country with various degrees of lockdowns, while keeping as much of the economy running as possible.

But trying to strike that balance has led to tensions between the government and local authorities, and even between ministers and members of the ruling Conservative Party.

The latest data show the transmission rate is highest in London and northern England, where tougher restrictions are coming into force from Saturday. It will be illegal to meet indoors in pubs and restaurants in the Liverpool city region, Warrington, Hartlepool and Middlesbrough.

In the capital, residents are being told to take immediate action to avoid catching and spreading coronavirus amid warnings the city is at a “tipping point” in its fight with the disease.

Members of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, a group of scientists advising ministers on the pandemic, urged caution over studies suggesting the rate of growth may be slowing.

Asked if those studies show recent restrictions including a “rule of six on social gatherings is working,” Johnson’s spokesman said the government is keeping all COVID-19 data under review.

“Obviously the aim is to reduce the rate,” spokesman Jamie Davies told reporters.

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