The UK may already have 55,000 coronavirus cases, the government's chief scientific advisor declared today.
Sir Patrick Vallance said the figure was a "reasonable ballpark" despite just over 1,500 COVID-19 cases being confirmed through testing.
He added "the hope is we can get it down to" around 20,000 deaths, from a previous prediction of 250,000, by using stringent measures to keep people at home.
Sir Patrick said annual excess deaths from seasonal flu were around 8,000. He added: "If we can get this down to numbers 20,000 and below, that's a good outcome in terms of where we would hope to get to with this outbreak.
"But that's still horrible. That's still an enormous number of deaths and it's an enormous pressure on the health service.
"Having spent 20 years as an NHS consultant as well as an academic, I know exactly what that looks and feels like."
The expert told MPs each patient was currently infecting two to three others, so there was a lag time of weeks before the infection rate would start to come down.
Health Committee chairman Jeremy Hunt asked whether the expected death rate was one fatality for every 1,000 cases, which would mean that there is "potentially 55,000 cases".
Asked if that felt right, Sir Patrick said: "We've tried to get a handle on that in Sage (the scientific advisory group for emergencies) and if you put all the modelling information together, that's a reasonable ballpark way of looking at it.
"It's not more accurate than that."
The government has been slammed for not testing everyone with symptoms. Sir Patrick admitted he was "pushing very hard" for a "big increase" in testing adding: "We simply don't have mass testing available for the population now. There's a big effort going to to try to get that in place as quickly as possible."
Boris Johnson last night announced stringent measures advising people against travel, going to pubs and going to work where possible after a study warned merely "mitigating" the disease could cause 250,000 deaths.
Today the PM told the cabinet coronavirus is a "war" which must be won today, as ministers scrambled to ease the impact of Covid-19 on businesses.
And he revealed a new 'ministerial structure' – with four new committees to deal with the fallout of the pandemic.
Sir Patrick told MPs case isolation would bring the peak down by about 20%, whole household quarantine by about 25% and general social distancing measures by about 50%.
Social shielding of the elderly has less of an effect on the peak but a "much bigger" effect on death rates, he said.
"Together you should expect those to have a very significant effect on the peak", he said.
Sir Patrick said closing schools was still on the table – but it was not the action with the biggest impact.
He said: "When we looked at all the intervention we looked at doing the ones which had the biggest impact first.
"School closing is a measure lower down the list than those we have announced – that doesn't mean it doesn't have any effect but it is complicated."
He raised concerns about workforce issues that would be created by children staying off "particularly in the NHS".
"It is absolutely on the table, as the whole suite of measures are, and the decisions will be made to pull that lever at the right time, but it isn't without complex consequences," he added.
Sir Patrick said it was a "semantic difference" to argue whether the UK had shifted from a process of delaying and mitigating the spread of Covid-19 to an attempt to suppress it.
He told MPs the approach had always been to "save lives and protect the vulnerable" by delaying and suppressing the peak of the outbreak and shielding those most likely to be badly hit.
In response to questions on the Imperial College modelling, he said: "It's a semantic difference whether you are calling it suppression, delay or mitigation – the aim is exactly the same, which is how do you keep this thing down, and how do you keep it below the level at which you want to keep it, and how do you keep it down for long enough to ensure that you've actually managed to achieve that suppression."
Answering a second question of what would happen when suppression measures are lifted, he said "that's one of the big unknowns in this which we are going to have to think about very carefully".
Asked if the scientists advising the government included critical voices Sir Patrick said: "Yes, absolutely. It is a lively and robust discussion. We don't try to get everyone saying the same thing. We look at the evidence and try and get the best answer we can."
He added that the advice given to ministers "has been very carefully listened to and not been over written with economic considerations".
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