The government needs to be “completely honest” about coronavirus deaths because “we really don’t know the full picture”, a former public health director has told Sky News.
Professor John Ashton says the total number of Britons who have died after testing positive for coronavirus will “almost certainly” pass 10,000 this weekend
However, Professor Ashton said the figure will not include deaths in care homes and in the community, meaning “we really don’t know the full picture” about COVID-19.
He also warned that the UK must focus more on shielding the elderly and vulnerable from the coronavirus, with some estimates suggesting that cases have now been identified in 50% of care homes nationwide.
“There have been some modelling estimates in the planning guidance that suggest once you get coronavirus into a care home you might expect as many as 30% deaths,” the former president of the Faculty of Public Health said.
“You’re talking about a very frail and vulnerable population – usually people in their 80s and 90s, maybe with dementia – and we can’t just write them off.”
On Friday, it was confirmed that another 980 patients have died in the UK after contracting coronavirus – surpassing Spain and Italy’s worst recorded daily totals.
Prof Ashton claimed the UK has often been slow to act during the pandemic – citing confusion over whether face masks are a useful deterrent against the coronavirus as an example.
He added that a lack of extensive testing has made it difficult for public health officials to know where COVID-19 was spreading fastest.
“The lockdown will now have to continue for quite a long time,” Prof Ashton said. “I think it’s really important for the government to be completely honest about the numbers.
“There’s a lot of worry now on social media that we’re not being given the full picture. People need to be treated like adults.”
Prof Ashton, who formerly served as Cumbria’s regional director of public health, described the government’s approach to informing the public about COVID-19 as “paternalistic… as though it’s been frightened to panic people”.
He said: “If you treat people as adults they’re more likely to behave as adults rather than as delinquents. We’re seeing the delinquency play out in house parties in Manchester and other kinds of things because people aren’t really trusting what’s going on.”
His warning came as Downing Street gave an update on Boris Johnson’s progress as he recovers from coronavirus.
A statement said that the prime minister “has been able to do short walks between periods of rest” since he was moved back from intensive care and into a hospital ward.
But a Number 10 spokesman warned it was too early to say how long he would need to stay in St Thomas’ Hospital in central London.
A senior government scientist has warned that the coronavirus pandemic remains in a “dangerous phase” – with Prof Jonathan Van-Tam, the UK’s deputy chief scientific adviser, stressing that “this is not over”.
During the daily Downing Street news conference, he said: “It’s premature to say we are at a peak and the push we are making with social distancing just has to continue.”
Ministers have said that tests for coronavirus have now reached more than 19,000 a day – against the government’s target of 100,000 by the end of this month.
The government is under intense pressure to set out an exit strategy for lifting restrictions that have closed pubs, restaurants and shops nationwide, and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) is continuing to study evidence.
Mr Hancock has said the health effects of the economic collapse resulting from measures to curb the outbreak will be a factor in the government’s decision on when to start easing the restrictions.
For now at least, the public are being urged to stay at home, observe lockdown rules and refrain from visiting friends and family over the Easter weekend.
A huge publicity blitz has been taking place across social media, newspapers and magazines, with the government warning the UK is at a “crucial moment in preventing further transmission of coronavirus”.