News, Culture & Society

Coronavirus UK: Lockdown seems to be easing with M25 ‘busier’

Pockets of Britain appear to be slowly returning to normal as traffic on the road increases, cafes reopen and shops resume trading as pressure grows for an exit plan from the lockdown ravaging the economy.

Pictures taken from the M25, M5 and M4 today show a notably busier picture than in recent days, with a steady stream of cars and vans suggesting some motorists who are not key workers may be flouting lockdown rules.

This comes as fast-food giants KFC and Burger King, as well as high street coffee chain Pret, gradually reopen stores across the UK. 

In signs of a Government strategy shift, B&Q has been allowed to open 14 stores to trial new social distancing measures. 

Since the lockdown, DIY stores have been allowed only to sell items for emergency repairs through click and collect services. 

Some B&Q stores have resumed trading after the DIY retailer carried out a trial reopening of 14 stores at the weekend, saying it was in a position to ‘follow best practice’ after seeing how other essential retailers have ‘supported social distancing in their stores’.

On Sunday, it already appeared lockdown measures could be slipping among Britons as the country saw the highest number of weekend drivers since lockdown measures were put in place.  

Ministers are continuing to push for a ‘traffic light’ plan which would see the country get back up in running in stages after May 11, with primary, GCSE pupils, and nurseries potentially going back part-time. 

Clothes shops and garden centres could be among the ‘non-essential’ stores given a ‘green light’ to reopen with precautions to protect customers. Rail services would be brought up to normal levels, with commuters probably urged to wear facemasks, and the NHS would resume carrying out non-urgent procedures. 

A second ‘amber’ stage later in the summer would see more of the economy revived, with all employees told to go back to work and some social gatherings allowed. 

This comes on the day England, Scotland and Wales have announced 757 more deaths from the coronavirus, taking Britain’s total number of victims to 18,094.

A further 665 people have died in England’s NHS hospitals and 92 more deaths were recorded in Scotland and Wales overnight.

A steady stream of motorists were seen travelling into Bristol on the M4 during morning rush hour today

The M25 was notably busier than in recent days this morning, with a number of vans and cars on the road

The M25 was notably busier than in recent days this morning, with a number of vans and cars on the road 

B&Q in Stockton, Teesside have opened their doors to the public for the first time in 4 weeks since the Covid-19 Lockdown. People stood waiting for the store to open at 8am this morning

B&Q in Stockton, Teesside have opened their doors to the public for the first time in 4 weeks since the Covid-19 Lockdown. People stood waiting for the store to open at 8am this morning

A 'traffic light' plan for easing the crippling lockdown curbs is being pushed by some ministers - although Downing Street is flatly denying it has a fixed plan yet

A ‘traffic light’ plan for easing the crippling lockdown curbs is being pushed by some ministers – although Downing Street is flatly denying it has a fixed plan yet

A Government graph on transport use during the UK coronavirus lockdown shows Sunday (April 19) with the highest number of vehicles on the road than any other

A Government graph on transport use during the UK coronavirus lockdown shows Sunday (April 19) with the highest number of vehicles on the road than any other 

The UK businesses reopening amid strict lockdown rules 

Businesses in the UK closed their doors over four weeks ago, but some are starting to re-open as an economic crash looms.

Nando’s: Portuguese restaurant 

Nando’s has reopened the kitchens in some of its restaurants to help feed NHS workers.

The peri-peri chicken chain said seven of its city centre restaurants reopened their kitchens on Monday, after the chain shut all its sites in the face of the pandemic last month.

Four restaurants in London, two in Manchester and one in Dublin are firing up their grills again to make meals for NHS workers and local charities.

The business said it will provide up to 1,700 free meals each day for NHS staff, key workers at local hospitals and charities.

KFC: Fast food chicken restaurant  

KFC is reopening 11 of its restaurants, for delivery only, with staff volunteering to work. 

The restaurants are in Aldershot, Birmingham, Glasgow, Ipswich, London, Manchester, Portsmouth, Stockport, and Tamworth.

Burger King: Fast food burger chain

Burger King has reopened four restaurants across UK with a pared-down menu for delivery only.

Staff will wear masks and gloves and will be trained to run delivery-only kitchens

It will be also be donating 1,000 meals week to staff working at NHS hospitals.

The fast food giant has reopened two in Bristol, one in Coventry, and one in Swindon.

Despite only offering 30 per cent of the regular menu, the chain is already doing a roaring trade with one branch doing a week’s worth of orders in just four days.

B&Q: DIY and hardware store 

B&Q tried out a trial opening of 14 of its stores of the weekend saying it was in a position to follow ‘best practice’ after seeing how other essential retailers have implemented social distancing measures.

Staff at the stores are wearing protective equipment such as visors and protective gloves. 

Pret A Manger: Take away coffee and food chain

Pret announced last week that 10 stores would be reopening  for a delivery and takeaway service, offering a reduced menu.

10 London branches will be open in order to support NHS workers.

They will offer standard Pret food as well as essentials such as milk, bread and butter.

The London Pret stores reopening are: Fulham Road, South Kensington, St George University, St John’s Wood, Tooting Broadway, Kings Road, City Road, Great Portland Street and Vauxhall, St George’s Wharf.

Five Guys: Burger chain

The chain is to open an extra seven stores to the 13 that have remained open during Coronavirus crisis.

The service is delivery and click and collect only. 

Stores that reopened over the last few days include: St Paul’s, Baker Street, Edinburgh Fort Kinnaird, Edinburgh Fountain Park, Plymouth, Liverpool Queen Square and Guildford.

On another frantic day with tensions rising in the coronavirus battle: 

  • England, Scotland and Wales have announced 757 more deaths from the coronavirus today, taking Britain’s total number of victims to 18,094;
  • A further 665 people have died in England’s NHS hospitals and 92 more deaths were recorded in Scotland and Wales overnight;
  • Care Minister Helen Whately was savaged during a series of brutal interviews this morning as she struggled to provide answers to key questions on the supply of PPE, deaths of frontline workers and testing errors; 
  • Dominic Raab is said to have forced a top civil servant to drop his claim that snubbing EU procurement scheme on coronavirus PPE was ‘political’;
  • Empty 4,000-bed Nightingale hospital turns away 30 ‘life or death’ coronavirus patients from other packed London wards because it lacks nurses and has only treated a total of 40 people;
  • Leaked memo reveals coronavirus tests given to NHS staff to let them return to work are flawed and gave false all-clear readings;
  • An RAF plane carrying vital PPE lands in Britain but it only has half the promised 84 tonnes of equipment

Burger King has reopened four restaurants including two in Bristol, one in Coventry, and one in Swindon. 

Despite only offering 30 per cent of the regular menu, the chain is already doing a roaring trade with one branch doing a week’s worth of orders in just four days.

It is operating with a pared-down menu and offering delivery on the apps JustEat and Deliveroo. 

KFC, Five Guys and Pret A Manger also recently announced plans to partially reopen. 

Pret will open near hospitals and GP surgeries for takeaway services only, adding the decision was made following requests from local NHS workers and hospitals. 

It will be giving NHS workers 50 per cent off until the end of April.

A total of 160 staff have volunteered to work at the reopened stores and all have undergone checks to ensure they are healthy, the company said. 

Nando’s has also reopened the kitchens in some of its restaurants to help feed NHS workers. 

It said the restaurants will operate behind closed doors, with meals dropped off at hospitals every evening between 6pm and 9pm.

Each restaurant will work under strict health and safety measures while maintaining social distancing, the chain said.

The restaurants will each look to cook up to 250 meals a shift before delivering them.

Before closing operations, Nando’s donated 20,000 free meals to NHS workers and has offered a 20 per cent discount to NHS workers for the past 20 years.

It will be the first time the group has reopened kitchens since it shut its sites on March 23 following the Government-mandated shutdown of restaurants, pubs and venues. 

KFC is reopening 11 of its restaurants, for delivery only, with staff volunteering to work. 

The restaurants are in Aldershot, Birmingham, Glasgow, Ipswich, London, Manchester, Portsmouth, Stockport, and Tamworth. 

The M5 going into Bristol was busier than in recent days, suggesting some could be flouting lockdown rules

The M5 going into Bristol was busier than in recent days, suggesting some could be flouting lockdown rules 

The store on Portrack Lane had a small queue of customers waiting outside, some wearing masks and gloves. A staff members is pictured above wearing a visor and protective gloves

The store on Portrack Lane had a small queue of customers waiting outside, some wearing masks and gloves. A staff members is pictured above wearing a visor and protective gloves

Vehicle numbers plummeted as soon as Britain was put on lockdown on March 23, with police issuing fines to anyone caught making non-essential journeys. 

Since then, Sundays have consistently seen the least traffic, with Easter Sunday (April 12) being the lowest at just over 20 per cent of pre-lockdown levels.

But last Sunday (April 19) the figures shot up again to just over 30 per cent – the highest they have been on a Sunday since social distancing began.

The Government data could suggest motorists are tiring of coronavirus restrictions and deciding to get in their cars anyway. 

Despite children not being in school, the end of the Easter holidays on Sunday could have contributed to the rise in cars on the roads. 

The unexpected hot weather across Britain on April 19 could have also been behind the spike in numbers, with families flocking to nearby parks and beauty spots.

Police are issuing fixed penalty charges to anyone they consider to be away from their homes without good reason, with £60 for a first offence and £120 for a second. 

Traffic light system to get out of lockdown: Schools, hairdressers and clothes shops could reopen from May 11 while over 70s face a ‘red’ signal for a YEAR 

Schools could start returning within three weeks under a ‘traffic light’ plan being pushed by senior ministers to ease lockdown misery – amid Cabinet splits over whether the government should risk more deaths from the disease to save the plunging economy.

The fledgling ‘exit strategy’ would see the country get back up in running in stages after May 11, with primary, GCSE pupils, and nurseries potentially going back part-time.  

Meanwhile, clothes shops and garden centres could be among the ‘non-essential’ stores given a ‘green light’ to reopen with precautions to protect customers. Rail services would be brought up to normal levels, with commuters probably urged to wear facemasks, and the NHS would resume carrying out non-urgent procedures. 

A second ‘amber’ stage later in the summer would see more of the economy revived, with all employees told to go back to work and some social gatherings allowed. 

However, it might not be until later in the year that pubs and restaurants can reopen and sporting events get up and running. And over-70s face a ‘red light’ for many months more, potentially having to wait for a vaccine before going back to normal life.

The proposals are gaining traction amid a mounting backlash at the lack of a clear plan – and as another 596 UK coronavirus deaths were announced, with the grim tally marking the lowest daily rise for two weeks. The overall number of fatalities now stands at 16,060, and cases were up by 5,850 to 120,067.

Senior ministers are divided between those who want to ‘run hot’, using apparent spare capacity in the NHS to relax social distancing soon, and those who fear acting too early will allow the disease to run rampant, according to the Sunday Times. 

After concerns about drift at the heart of power, Boris Johnson is gearing up to take back the reins of government, making calls to ministers from Chequers where he is recuperating from his own health scare with the disease. 

Cabinet minister MIchael Gove tried to dampen down frenzied speculation over loosening of restrictions at the weekend, saying while it was ‘entirely understandable’ people want to know the way out it was too early to make such decisions. 

Asked if the ‘traffic light’ system was the government’s ‘exit strategy’, Mr Gove told Sky News: ‘No it’s not. It is the case that we are looking at all the evidence. But we have  set some tests that must be passed before we can even think about easing the lockdown.’ 

Although he stressed no decisions had been taken, Mr Gove did hint at the shape of an easing, suggesting pubs and other parts of the hospitality industry will be ‘among the last’ to come back.

Vehicle numbers plummeted as soon as Britain was put on lockdown on March 23, with police issuing fines to anyone caught making non-essential journeys. Pictured: traffic sparse on the M4 near London over the Easter weekend

Vehicle numbers plummeted as soon as Britain was put on lockdown on March 23, with police issuing fines to anyone caught making non-essential journeys. Pictured: traffic sparse on the M4 near London over the Easter weekend 

Delivery drivers collect orders from Burger King at Central 6 Retail Park, Coventry at lunchtime yesterday

Delivery drivers collect orders from Burger King at Central 6 Retail Park, Coventry at lunchtime yesterday

Unveiling the latest figures during Tuesday’s Downing Street press conference, deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van Tam claimed car numbers were down. 

He said: ‘It is important that we continue to monitor the extent to which the British people are following the social distancing advice and in the case of this graph, not travelling. 

‘You can see a very clear prolongation of these low trends of usage compared to where we were in the middle of March.’

He said car levels consistently falling below 40 per cent of February levels were a ‘good sign’ and would contribute to beating the virus.

But Professor Van Tam did not comment on the Sunday increase. MailOnline has contacted the Cabinet Office for further comment. 

The day before the Prime Minister imposed a strict lockdown on March 23, the number of cars on the road was around 70 per cent of what it was in February. 

Throughout the week, motor vehicle levels have been higher – close to 40 per cent, with a drop at the weekend and particularly on Sundays of around 10 to 15 per cent.

On March 29 they were just over 25 per cent of February levels, rising to around 28 per cent the following Sunday on April 5.

Easter Sunday April 12 saw the lowest traffic levels recorded by police forces since in the 1950s.

The Government figures show car usage as just over 20 per cent that weekend. But a week later it was over 30 per cent again.

UK announces 757 more coronavirus victims taking total deaths to 18,094 as analysis suggests Britain’s real toll could ALREADY be higher than 41,000 – and figures show a THIRD of deaths in Scotland occur in care homes

England, Scotland and Wales have announced 757 more deaths from the coronavirus today, taking Britain’s total number of victims to 18,094.

A further 665 people have died in England’s NHS hospitals and 92 more deaths were recorded in Scotland and Wales overnight.

A full round-up for the UK is expected this afternoon from the Department of Health and will adjust the figures downwards to match up different reporting periods. 

But the coronavirus outbreak in the UK may have killed more than 41,000 people already when non-hospital deaths are included.

An analysis of backdated statistics by the Financial Times has predicted that, by the time care home deaths and unrecorded hospital fatalities are added up, it could emerge that 41,102 people had died by April 21. The official toll was 17,337. 

Meanwhile the National Records of Scotland revealed in a bombshell report today that the true scale of its coronavirus deaths is 79 per cent larger than government statistics show – a third of all people dying with the virus are dying in care homes.

The National Records data adjusted the total number of victims in Scotland to 1,616, by which time only 903 had been officially announced. 537 of them died in homes.

A similar surge is emerging in England, too, and a statement from the Department of Health and Care Quality Commission this morning said at least 2,000 people are thought to have died over the Easter weekend and to not yet have been counted.

The two organisations said officials expect a ‘significant increase’ in the number of deaths reported from nursing homes in the coming days and weeks. 

The Office for National Statistics, which releases data once per week and counts deaths that happen outside of hospitals, already outstrip NHS statistics by at least 41 per cent

The Office for National Statistics, which releases data once per week and counts deaths that happen outside of hospitals, already outstrip NHS statistics by at least 41 per cent

CARE HOME DEATHS DOUBLE IN A FORTNIGHT IN ENGLAND & WALES

The weekly number of care home deaths has doubled in a fortnight amid the coronavirus crisis.

ONS data yesterday showed 4,927 fatalities were recorded in homes across England and Wales in the week that ended April 10 – including 826 officially linked to COVID-19.

This almost doubled from the 2,489 care home deaths recorded in the week ending March 27, the week when the UK’s lockdown begun.

It means the official care home death toll – up until April 10 – in England and Wales stands at 1,043. But the true figure is likely to be much higher. 

Industry figures fear the true number is closer to 4,000 because fatalities are being under-reported due to a lack of testing. Only people in hospitals are routinely tested for the disease.

GPs are also sometimes reluctant to write COVID-19 on death certificates and figures from care homes are not included in the official daily toll, care bosses say.

ONS data also showed the number of care home deaths that occurred up until April 10 that were registered by April 18 was 1,458 in England alone.

But the ONS weekly data release is the only measure given to the public about how many people are dying outside of hospitals. Hospital statistics are released and updated every day.  

Liz Kendall, Labour’s shadow minister for social care, said today: ‘These awful figures are only scratching the surface of the emerging crisis in social care because they are already 11 days out of date.’

The FT extrapolation is based on the number of excess deaths, including data from Scotland and Northern Ireland, but its exact workings are not immediately clear. 

Its model essentially forecasts how backdated data, including deaths which happened outside of hospitals, could look in 10 days’ time.

It is based on data from the National Records of Scotland and Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency, as well as the ONS, which covers England and Wales. 

There have been around 17,000 excess deaths across the UK since mid-March, these statistics show, but the number is out of date due to a lag in reporting.  

The estimate of 41,102 deaths by April 21 includes more than 10,000 taking place in care homes. 

ONS figures already show that one in 10 coronavirus deaths between April 4 and April 10 happened in nursing homes in England and Wales.

And this number is expected to increase as more data becomes available for the days around the peak of the fatalities in hospitals, now thought to have been April 8. 

ONS statistics yesterday showed that deaths in care homes had doubled over recent weeks but only 17 per cent of the death certificates mentioned COVID-19.

Professor David Spiegelhalter, from the University of Cambridge, told the FT it was not likely that those were the only ones in which the coronavirus played a part.

He said indirect effects – such as people avoiding hospital for fear of catching the virus there – were not likely to account for such a huge spike in deaths. 

‘There is no suggestion that the collateral damage, however large it is, is anything like as big as the harm from COVID,’ Professor Spiegelhalter said.

Care home fatalities are expected to soar in the coming weeks, the Government has admitted.

The Care Quality Commission (CQC), which regulates homes and providers in England, is now keeping track of people who die of suspected COVID-19 in care but who have not been officially tested.

CARE HOME DEATHS IN ENGLAND SET TO TRIPLE WHEN RECORDS CATCH UP 

Care home deaths in England may be three times higher than official figures show, the Government today admitted.

Office for National Statistics data released yesterday revealed there had been 975 fatalities in homes across the country by April 10.

But the Department of Health and the care regulator now fear almost 2,000 deaths were recorded between April 11 and April 15.

This would put the true number of deaths at around the 3,000 mark by last week, if the figure is correct.

Officials did not estimate deaths that occurred in homes in the last week, meaning the true death toll will be even higher.

It does also not take into account Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

As a result, the Department of Health said there may have been at least 2,000 deaths recorded over the Easter weekend which haven’t yet been counted anywhere.

In a statement today the two organisations said: ‘Issues with the completeness and consistency of [deaths] data meant that the number of COVID-19 deaths being reported did not match what CQC was hearing anecdotally from providers. 

‘In response, CQC amended its data collection form to make it easier to record and collate this data, and communicated with providers to make it clear that they should be notifying CQC of both COVID-19 and suspected COVID-19 deaths. 

‘This improved data collection began on 10 April. The ONS data published yesterday covers the period until 10 April. 

‘CQC’s current preliminary analysis is up to 15 April; it is anticipated that the number of deaths in care homes relating to COVID-19 reported by providers between 11 April and 15 April could be double the number of care home deaths reported yesterday.’

Office for National Statistics data released yesterday revealed there had been 975 fatalities in homes across the country up to and including April 10.

But the Department of Health and the care regulator now fear almost 2,000 deaths were recorded between April 11 and April 15 alone.

This would put the true number of deaths at around the 3,000 mark by last week, if the figure is correct, and it will have risen even further by the time this data comes to light.

A similar surge in statistics caused by care home deaths is unfolding in Scotland. 

The National Records of Scotland has revealed that the true number of deaths there is significantly higher than the government records show.

Information from the National Records of Scotland today showed that the country's COVID-19 death toll surged by almost 80 per cent (from 903 to 1,616 when care deaths outside of hospitals were included)

Information from the National Records of Scotland today showed that the country’s COVID-19 death toll surged by almost 80 per cent (from 903 to 1,616 when care deaths outside of hospitals were included)

A third of all COVID-19 deaths in Scotland (537 out of 1,616 - 33 per cent) are happening in care homes, national records show

A third of all COVID-19 deaths in Scotland (537 out of 1,616 – 33 per cent) are happening in care homes, national records show

Up to April 19, the records show, 1,616 people had died with COVID-19 in Scotland. By that time, Public Health Scotland had announced 903 victims.

The new information, which includes people who died outside of hospitals, as well as backdated hospital deaths, puts the death toll 79 per cent higher than the day-by-day number put out by the Scottish Government. 

One in every three of the deaths happened in nursing homes, the BBC reported.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon today said 384 homes in the country have confirmed they have outbreaks of COVID-19 among their residents. 

The British Government has been accused of leaving nursing homes ‘badly in the lurch’ by former Labour minister, Lord Peter Hain. 

Lord Hain criticised the Government’s lack of testing during a virtual House of Lords question time session.

The 70-year-old peer said: ‘How on earth is the Government going to lift restrictions without universal testing, especially in care homes where there is virtually no such capacity at all?’

He said there was not enough personal protective equipment (PPE) in care homes and charity providers are being forced to spend their own money on it. 

‘The Government needs urgently to give billions more to care homes instead of leaving them so badly in the lurch during this crisis,’ he said. 

Baroness Margaret Wheeler, also a member of the Labour Party, said there had been reports of an ‘alarming increase’ in care home deaths, with estimates of more than 6,000 fatalities above official figures.

Calls for inquiry into decision to let 100,000 race-goers into Cheltenham as virus deaths in nearby hospitals are DOUBLE those in neighbouring areas

Medical experts have called for an investigation into whether the decision to allow the Cheltenham Festival to go ahead caused a rise in local coronavirus cases.

Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Trust has recorded 125 deaths from the disease so far, more than double those in nearby Swindon with 67, Bristol on 58 and Bath on 46.

This huge disparity is despite the four trusts having relatively similar emergency admission rates in the 2018 to 2019 period, ranging between 45,000 and 56,000. 

Scientists are concerned that the event was allowed to go ahead on March 10 to 13 after the Government failed to ban mass gatherings as the crisis gathered pace. 

Around of third of the 100,000 people who went to the event – which had a total attendance of 251,000 – are thought to have come from Ireland, with most of the rest from around Britain. However, many of the workers there were local residents. 

One medicine professor said the Cheltenham link was ‘quite possible’ and ‘worthy of investigation’, while a virologist said it was not a sensible decision to hold the event. 

But organisers The Jockey Club have so far stood firm that the Festival went under under Government advice to do so along with many other sports events that week. 

And Gloucestershire Council said there were ‘many factors’ influencing cases and deaths in an area, adding that the South West has seen the lowest number in the UK. 

Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Trust has recorded 125 deaths from the coronavirus so far, more than double those in nearby Swindon with 67, Bristol on 58 and Bath on 46

Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Trust has recorded 125 deaths from the coronavirus so far, more than double those in nearby Swindon with 67, Bristol on 58 and Bath on 46

This graphic shows the coronavirus deaths recorded by each NHS trust across England

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline, said that the figures showing the higher death rate in Gloucestershire compared to other hospitals suggested ‘there is certainly something worthy of investigation’.

He added: ‘But can we definitively prove it was the Cheltenham Festival that was responsible for this excess in the area? Probably not unless it was properly investigated, and even then we may not be able to prove anything. 

‘Even if it was the Cheltenham Festival that accelerated the epidemic locally, many of the deaths may not have been in people who were in attendance but may have been in contact with people who were going. 

‘Infection may or may not have spread at the racecourse itself or be transmitted by attendees who then went into local towns for dinner or other social activities.

Thousands of people attended the festival in Gloucestershire, pictured above on March 13

Thousands of people attended the festival in Gloucestershire, pictured above on March 13

In quotes: What’s being said about whether Cheltenham should have gone ahead? 

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia: ‘Could the Cheltenham Festival have led to an acceleration of cases locally that has fuelled this local high mortality rate? This is certainly possible and in the absence of any other factors that I may not be aware of, is quite likely.’

Professor John Ashton, a former director of public health for Cumbria: ‘We know the Festival went ahead and a lot of people will have attended and worked there. It’s important we learn about what the potential is for coronavirus transmission at public events.’

Lawrence Young, a virologist and oncologist at Warwick Medical School: ‘I don’t think that allowing the Cheltenham Festival to go ahead was sensible but assume that the attendance was from far and wide, not just the locals.’

Paul Hodgkinson, Gloucestershire council’s Liberal Democrat group leader: ‘Future investigations may well conclude that events such as this were at least partly responsible for a significant proportion of the UK’s transmission, and the devastating consequences that we’ve seen as a nation.’

Sarah Scott, Gloucestershire council’s public health director, said: ‘There are many factors that could influence the number of cases in an area, including population density, age and health profile and the position of an area on the pandemic curve.’

Chancellor Rishi Sunak: ‘At every stage in this crisis we’ve been guided by the scientific advice and have been making the right decision at the right time’ 

Sue Smith, senior racecourse medical officer at Cheltenham Festival: ‘It’s simply not possible to know how and where someone who has tested positive for Covid-19 has contracted it’. 

Jockey Club: ‘The festival went ahead under Government guidance to do so, like other sports events at Twickenham, Murrayfield, 10 Premier League matches and the UEFA Champions League, all with full houses that same week’ 

British Horseracing Authority: ‘The Government advice before and during Cheltenham was that mass gatherings were not a high area of risk, provided hygiene measures were in place and observed.’ 

‘Having said all that, could the Cheltenham Festival have led to an acceleration of cases locally that has fuelled this local high mortality rate? This is certainly possible and in the absence of any other factors that I may not be aware of, is quite likely.’

Professor Hunter added that the UK should have ‘definitely’ imposed a ban on mass public events sooner than it did on March 16, saying: ‘It has been argued that in large gatherings you are still only at risk from people immediately around you. 

‘This is correct but what is sometimes forgotten, is that those people may have come from all over the UK and beyond. 

‘So such gatherings are at risk of spreading an infection around the country more rapidly and introducing the infection into the population who live in the area where the event is happening.’

Professor John Ashton, a former director of public health for Cumbria, told the Guardian that the figures ‘deserve to be properly investigated’.

He added: ‘We know the Festival went ahead and a lot of people will have attended and worked there. It’s important we learn about what the potential is for coronavirus transmission at public events’.

Lawrence Young, a virologist and oncologist at Warwick Medical School, added: ‘It’s always hard to interpret the death data, particularly when trying to determine the excess deaths due to Covid-19.

‘You have to take into account the relative size of the NHS Trust and the population mix in terms of ethnicity and socio-economics.’

He cited the example of University Hospitals Birmingham, which is one of Britain’s largest trust in terms of beds and catchment and has the highest deaths overall.

He added: ‘I don’t think that allowing the Cheltenham Festival to go ahead was sensible but assume that the attendance was from far and wide, not just the locals.’

And opposition councillors in Gloucestershire have told the Guardian how they want to ask public health officials further questions about the issue.

Paul Hodgkinson, the council’s Liberal Democrat group leader, told MailOnline: ‘Questions are quite rightly being asked around whether Cheltenham races should have been allowed to go ahead just as the WHO was declaring a pandemic. 

‘Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing, however encouraging crowds of over a quarter of a million racegoers to congregate while other countries like Italy were struggling to contain the virus now looks to be an extremely poor decision by Government ministers who advised the Jockey Club to proceed.

‘Gloucestershire, and particularly Cheltenham, is now seen as a hotspot for the virus in the South West – the county’s Covid-19 cases make up 20 per cent of the whole region’s total. 

The South West, including a big city like Bristol, has low numbers of confirmed cases so it’s legitimate to ask why Gloucestershire is so much higher. 

‘Future investigations may well conclude that events such as this were at least partly responsible for a significant proportion of the UK’s transmission, and the devastating consequences that we’ve seen as a nation.’

Sarah Scott, Gloucestershire council’s public health director, said: ‘There are many factors that could influence the number of cases in an area, including population density, age and health profile and the position of an area on the pandemic curve. 

Racegoers celebrated and hug each other after a race on March 13 at the Cheltenham Festival

Racegoers celebrated and hug each other after a race on March 13 at the Cheltenham Festival

Epidemiologist says halting football before gatherings ban may have saved lives

The decision to suspend professional football in England before the Government formally banned mass gatherings due to the coronavirus pandemic was a potential lifesaver, according to an epidemiologist. 

The English professional game took the decision to suspend competition on March 13 ahead of a round of matches that weekend, but that decision was made following positive tests for Arsenal head coach Mikel Arteta and Chelsea forward Callum Hudson-Odoi, rather than following Government advice, which only changed the following Monday when Prime Minister Boris Johnson said emergency workers would no longer support such events.

The decision to suspend meant 45 matches due to be played in the Premier League and EFL that weekend did not take place, and Dr Rowland Kao from the University of Edinburgh says that was potentially a very significant and important call.

Asked whether there would have been a negative impact of those matches going ahead, Dr Kao said: ‘There’s a good chance, yes. There’s no guarantee with the number of infected people in the country at that time that somebody (with the infection) would have been there. But if someone had been there and been infectious, there was a potential for very large amounts of spread.

‘The problem you have in making that comparison is there’s no counterfactual. The people who got infected may have got infected anyway. But broadly speaking, the more things we would have done of that nature (banning mass gatherings), the better off we would be likely to have been.

‘That figure that is mentioned of two-and-a-half to three people roughly infected by one person (prior to lockdown), those are under normal circumstances with normal amounts of contact.

‘It’s not entirely clear what happens when you change the contact to something where you have mass gatherings. Those gatherings are an opportunity for viruses to transmit in a more comprehensive way.

‘It seems to be that direct transmission is important (for the spread of coronavirus) – infectious people coughing spray out an amount of virus over an area.

‘Now the number of people you could infect depends on the number of people you come into contact with. So for a normal person on my street it might be one, maybe two people at most, but if you’re sitting in a crowd for two hours imagine all the people around you that you could infect.’

Dr Kao also envisages that the return of supporters to sporting events could be reliant on the development of an effective vaccine. It is impossible to predict when such a vaccine will be developed, but even optimistic estimates say it could be as long as 18 months.

‘Whatever we have it would have to be something that would stop an epidemic in its tracks, where we wouldn’t have to go to the extent of the kind of social distancing we’re having now,’ he said.

‘There are very few things that can do that. A vaccine is one of the most important ones. It would have to be a pretty good vaccine as well.’

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Monday: ‘I would absolutely say that people should not be under the expectation that large-scale mass gatherings will be starting any time soon.

‘Because we must make sure we do everything we can to suppress this virus and, as we start to lift restrictions, make sure we’ve got the capability in place through ‘test, trace, isolate’ to replace those restrictions but also continue to have the understanding that some form of social-distancing is going to be required perhaps up to the point where a vaccine is available.’ 

‘It is also not possible to make comparisons between hospital trusts across the region as they all serve populations of differing size and characteristics. 

‘Fortunately the South West region has seen the lowest number of cases and deaths in the UK and we continue to work hard to support communities during these unprecedented times.’

It comes after Professor Dame Angela McLean, deputy chief scientific adviser to the Government, said it was an ‘interesting hypothesis’ that Liverpool’s Champions League match against Atletico Madrid may have spread coronavirus in the city.

More than 3,000 fans made the trip from the Spanish capital to Merseyside for the March 11 fixture, despite their home city already subject to partial lockdown.

Dame Angela admitted on Monday it will be interesting to look at the scientific evidence and the Champions League last-16 second leg tie at Anfield down the line.

However, she pointed out that – given the general policy at the time – going to a football match was not considered a ‘particularly large extra risk’.

The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, defended the Government on Monday for not having introduced a ban on large sporting events sooner.

‘At every stage in this crisis we’ve been guided by the scientific advice and have been making the right decision at the right time,’ Mr Sunak said.

‘This is an unprecedented situation we’re all dealing with, I’m sure there are all things that we will learn from this.’ 

Camilla’s ex-husband Andrew Parker Bowles, comedian Lee Mack and footballer Charlie Austin are all thought to have contracted the infection at Cheltenham.

Another attendee, Lancashire county cricket club chairman David Hodgkiss, 71, died of the infection in early April – but there is no firm evidence that he caught it there. 

Racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks also revealed fears that he got the virus at the Festival – as did two racecourse workers, Andrew Maclean and Scott Saunders.

Fans were packed into the stands at the world-famous festival with no protection despite fears over the spread of the virus which was then in its early stages in Britain.

It went ahead just two weeks before the lockdown on March 23, with 60,000 to 70,000 attendees daily at a time when Italy was already in lockdown as of March 9.

But organisers The Jockey Club have insisted the festival ‘went ahead under Government guidance’. It finished three days before mass gatherings were banned.

Appearing on Good Morning Britain this week, Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden deflected presenter Piers Morgan’s claims his team were ‘actively encouraging’ people to attend the event while other world leaders were banning mass gatherings.

Mr Dowden told the programme: ‘The scientific evidence we were being given was that, at a mass gathering, the threat at a mass gathering relates to the people who immediately surround you – the people in front of you and behind you.

‘The risk at mass gatherings was no greater or less than it would have been in pubs or restaurants, and the advice at that point was that we did not need to ban mass gatherings.’

Asked if the advice was wrong, Mr Dowden replied: ‘As the situation developed, the scientific advice changed and we changed our guidance off the back of it.

‘But mass gatherings are not different to any of those other events I described and at the appropriate moment we took the decision to close pubs, to close restaurants.’

There was huge debate at the time of the Festival over whether it should go ahead, especially with dozens of other sports events being cancelled due to the pandemic.

These included Premier League football matches, England’s cricket tour of Sri Lanka and Formula One races – all called off on March 13, the last day of Cheltenham.

Hundreds more people who attended the festival have also taken to social media to claim they contracted the virus while at the event in Gloucestershire.

While most of them have not been tested and cannot prove where they picked up their illness, dozens claim they only started showing symptoms after the event.

Camilla was at the event, although tested negative for the virus. Her husband Prince Charles tested positive, but has since recovered from a ‘mild’ form of the illness.

A spokesman for Cheltenham Festival and its organisers The Jockey Club said previously: ‘The festival went ahead under Government guidance to do so, like other sports events at Twickenham, Murrayfield, 10 Premier League matches and the UEFA Champions League, all with full houses that same week.

‘We promoted the latest public health advice and introduced a range of additional hygiene measures at the event including hundreds of hand sanitiser dispensers and extra washbasins, which worked well.’ 

Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and Andrew Parker Bowles at the Festival on March 11

Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and Andrew Parker Bowles at the Festival on March 11

Intensive care consultant says it was ‘downright insane’ to allow two sell-out Stereophonics concerts to go ahead in front of 15,000 fans in Cardiff after major sporting events were cancelled due to coronavirus 

A consultant working in intensive care has described the decision to let two Stereophonics gigs go ahead at the start of the coronavirus outbreak as ‘downright insane’.

David Hepburn, who made the comment on Twitter, works at the Royal Gwent Hospital in Newport – which has seen one of the highest coronavirus infection rates in the UK outside of London.

The four-piece band sold out both gigs within minutes when tickets went on sale in September – with 15,000 people packing into the Motorpoint Arena in Cardiff over the two nights on March 14 and 15, with fans seeing the band perform as part of their Kind 2020 tour.

Pictures and videos shared on social media from the band’s official Twitter account showed fans singing along in their droves at the venue, despite other major mass gathering events having been cancelled already.

15,000 music revellers took to Cardiff's Motorpoint Arena to listen to the Stereophonics on their Kind 2020 Tour on March 14 and 15

15,000 music revellers took to Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena to listen to the Stereophonics on their Kind 2020 Tour on March 14 and 15

The four-piece band sold out both gigs within minutes when tickets went on sale in September

The four-piece band sold out both gigs within minutes when tickets went on sale in September

David Hepburn (pictured), who works as an intensive care consultant at the Royal Gwent Hospital in Newport, says the decision to play the gigs was 'downright insane'

David Hepburn (pictured), who works as an intensive care consultant at the Royal Gwent Hospital in Newport, says the decision to play the gigs was ‘downright insane’

Hepburn made the comment on Twitter on Monday – over a month after the gigs went ahead

 Hepburn made the comment on Twitter on Monday – over a month after the gigs went ahead

Taking to Twitter to share the mass gathering at the time, the Welsh rock band, who hail from the former coal mining village of Cwmaman, posted a video of their fans attending their show next to the caption: ‘Cardiff in beautiful voice tonight! #stereophonics #Kind2020Tour.’

Wales’ Six Nations match against Scotland was called off and football fixtures including Cardiff City’s home clash against Leeds United were postponed.

Dr Hepburn, who caught coronavirus himself but has since returned to work, said on Twitter: ‘With retrospect, as disapproving as I was at the time, the decision of Stereophonics to play those gigs in Cardiff at the start of the outbreak seems downright insane now.’ 

After seeing the thousands of fans in attendance, many people responded with anger, calling the decision to let the gigs go ahead as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘selfish’.

Another doctor told WalesOnline that he and his wife sent Facebook messages to Stereophonics urging them to cancel the event.

‘I don’t think we were the only medics to do,’ said the doctor, who had even bought tickets to the March 14 show but didn’t attend.

The Welsh band shared a video of their fans gathered at the Cardiff arena next to the caption: 'Cardiff in beautiful voice tonight'

The Welsh band shared a video of their fans gathered at the Cardiff arena next to the caption: ‘Cardiff in beautiful voice tonight’

Some social media users slammed the move following the gig and questioned why the concert was able to go ahead amid the coronavirus outbreak

Some social media users slammed the move following the gig and questioned why the concert was able to go ahead amid the coronavirus outbreak

‘It became really clear in March what was happening [with coronavirus]. You could see that London was already having problems and that it was going to reach us.

‘At that point there were already confirmed cases in Caerphilly and other parts of south east Wales.

‘I’ve been a fan of the band since the very beginning and I have all their albums, so it was hard for me the ask them to cancel their gigs.

‘But to have thousands of people all congregating together like that was just irresponsible.’

The doctor added that he sent an email to the band after the tour had ended requesting his money back, which he would then donate to a Covid-19 charity or cause.

But he said he has heard nothing back.

‘It’s easy to say in hindsight, but they had a responsibility to their fans, many of whom live in areas of Wales where there are a lot of vulnerable people who could be hit hard by the virus,’ he added.

‘When the band defiantly put their posts from the gig on social media, that was it for me. I will never go and see them again or buy any of their new albums.’

Motorpoint Arena said the decision to go ahead with the concerts was made following close monitoring of guidance by the World Health Organisation, Public Health Wales, UK Government and local public health authorities.

First Minister Mark Drakeford said in a press conference last week: ‘The whole of the UK moved to postpone mass gatherings on the same day. Scotland had announced they were going to a few days earlier but said it would start from the Monday, and the Monday [the Monday after the concerts on Saturday and Sunday] was the day on which the restrictions were introduced across the UK.

‘So we were in no different a position here in Wales than anywhere else, and as soon as the advice was that it was clinically important to shut down major events that’s exactly what we did.’

Stereophonics have also been approached for comment.

Racehorse trainer Charlie Brooks also fears he got the virus at Cheltenham. He is seen at a previous festival in Gloucestershire on March 14, 2012

West Bromwich Albion footballer Charlie Austin (left, pictured with a fan on March 10 at the racecourse) believes he contracted coronavirus at Cheltenham last month

West Bromwich Albion footballer Charlie Austin (left, pictured with a fan on March 10 at the racecourse) believes he contracted coronavirus at Cheltenham last month

A British Horseracing Authority spokesman also said previously: ‘We have taken great care to follow Government guidance. 

‘The Government itself has been clear about the need to act proportionately and we have been in regular, direct contact with them.

‘Some sports went beyond this when they started to see their own players and staff become affected. We were not aware of similar cases in racing at that time.

This graphic shows which royals met each other during the Cheltenham Festival, before they held other events thereafter. There is a 14-day incubation period with the virus - and someone carrying it is thought to infect an average of two people. Only Prince Charles and Andrew Parker Bowles in the above graphic are known to have contracted coronavirus

This graphic shows which royals met each other during the Cheltenham Festival, before they held other events thereafter. There is a 14-day incubation period with the virus – and someone carrying it is thought to infect an average of two people. Only Prince Charles and Andrew Parker Bowles in the above graphic are known to have contracted coronavirus

Call to open garden centres to avoid destroying £200m of seasonal plants 

By Helen Cahill, City correspondent for the Mail on Sunday 

Britain’s garden centres could reopen almost immediately – with strict social distancing rules – under proposals being considered by Ministers.

Businesses have warned that £200million-worth of seasonal plants will be destroyed if centres are forced to stay closed until June.

That would mean an overall loss of £1.6billion due to the lockdown, so the industry has devised a rescue plan which it sent to officials two weeks ago.

It details how the UK’s 2,000 garden centres could open their doors for the rest of the crucial spring and summer season without putting customers and staff at risk. The three month period between April and June is the equivalent of Christmas for the horticulture industry.

Ready to sell: Plants waiting for gardeners at a centre in Essex. Businesses have warned that £200 million-worth of seasonal plants will be destroyed if centres are forced to stay closed until June

Ready to sell: Plants waiting for gardeners at a centre in Essex. Businesses have warned that £200 million-worth of seasonal plants will be destroyed if centres are forced to stay closed until June

Garden centre bosses insist they could shift stock quickly and start paying suppliers if the Government approves the new arrangements, which would allow the public to buy plants, essential gardening equipment and pet care products that are being sold elsewhere in stores that stayed open.

Restaurants, cafes and areas selling non-plant products in the complexes would remain closed.

Under the plans, customers would only be able to use car parks in limited numbers, with an empty space left between each parked vehicle.

Entry to the centres would be strictly controlled, with one-way walking, one customer for every 1,000 sq ft of floor space and tape marks on the floor to enforce social distancing. Perspex screens would protect staff and trolleys would be disinfected regularly.

Sarah Squire, chairman of major chain Squires, said: ‘The timing could not be worse for our sector. It’s all about the spring for us, and if we can catch a little bit of that, it would make a very big difference.

‘We make 40 per cent of our annual takings from the middle of March to the end of June. So you don’t need a degree in economics to know that for the rest of the year it will be difficult for us.

‘You need to make your profits in the spring to carry the business through the rest of the year.’

Simon Burke, chairman of the country’s second-largest garden chain, Blue Diamond, said: ‘If the summer bedding plants aren’t sold between now and the end of June, they are dead.

‘Obviously there is absolutely no room for compromise on safety. But garden centres are large spaces so customers could come in and keep their distance, much more so than they would in an average food store, where the aisles are not very wide.’

Boyd Douglas Davies, president of the Horticultural Trade Association, warned that unless action was taken promptly, millions of plants would be heading towards compost heaps instead of gardens.

He added: ‘This is a quick and easy way for the Government to give something back to the public. If you’re asking them to stay at home for a long time, give them something to do in their garden.’

A sign in front of closed gates at Squire's Garden Centre in Farnham, Surrey, during the lockdown. Garden centre bosses insist they could shift stock quickly and start paying suppliers if the Government approves the new arrangements (file photo)

A sign in front of closed gates at Squire’s Garden Centre in Farnham, Surrey, during the lockdown. Garden centre bosses insist they could shift stock quickly and start paying suppliers if the Government approves the new arrangements (file photo)

The garden centres have missed out on much of the sales they would normally generate from spring plants but bosses are hopeful that they could avoid more serious financial pain if they are allowed to offload stocks of summer plants.

It is thought that independent nurseries that supply the larger stores could be worst hit, as some of them make up to 80 per cent of their yearly sales at this time.

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk