England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said the evidence showed that there was an “exponential curve” in the number of hospital beds being occupied.
He told the Commons Science and Technology committee that on September 7 there were 536 inpatient cases – at the beginning of October it was around 2,500 and “as of today it’s actually breached 10,000 people in hospital”.
“You don’t need too much modelling to tell you that you are on an exponential upward curve of beds,” he said.
Prof Whitty said that although Tier 2 and Tier 3 restrictions in England were having an effect in reducing the R number – the reproduction rate of the virus – they had not been able to get it below 1, the point at which it is spreading.
He said that in areas such as Liverpool where hospitals were already under pressure only a small increase in the R number could lead to “quite serious trouble”.
Prof Whitty also confirmed that the problem is a national one, with the rate of increase of cases in the South West being faster than that found in the north even though the bed capacity is lower.
“Although they look further away at the moment they could hit difficulties relatively quickly,” he said.
“We’ve now got hospitals already like in Liverpool, which are above their previous peak, and it doesn’t take much increase from that until you run into quite serious trouble,” he told the Science and Technology Committee.
“So the ability to actually hang on and say ‘well, let’s wait a couple weeks, let’s just see what happens’ – the problem is the people who are in hospital now were infected several weeks ago.
“So it’s quite a long lead time between taking an action and having an effect on reducing the number of people going into hospital, going into intensive care and sadly in some cases dying.
“And therefore if you wait too long you have baked in a very large backlog of things where the rates are still going up and we do not have, in my view, clear evidence at this point that R is below 1 in anywhere that we actually have significantly high rates.”
The Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance defended the use of modelling following criticism of the information presented at the press conference where England’s lockdown was announced.
He told the committee the “six-week forward projection” – the most reliable part of the modelling – suggested the number of people in hospital would pass the first wave “towards the end of November”.
The number of deaths would equal the first wave “somewhere in mid-December”.
But that projection was based on nothing changing, so did not take into account the expected impact of the lockdown due to come into force in England on Thursday.