The UK is “at the peak” of the coronavirus outbreak, Health Secretary Matt Hancock has told MPs – on the same day the number of UK hospital deaths rose above 18,000.
Delivering an update on the government’s COVID-19 response in the House of Commons on Wednesday, Mr Hancock thanked the British public for their “steadfast commitment” in following lockdown rules.
“It is making a difference, we are at the peak,” he said.
But the health secretary added that social distancing measures would not be relaxed or changed until the government’s five tests for exiting the lockdown are reached.
It was later announced that another 665 people had died in English hospitals after testing positive with coronavirus, bringing the total to 16,272.
In Scotland, another 77 hospital patients had died with coronavirus in the last 24 hours, bringing the total to 1,062.
And, in Wales, another 15 people died in hospitals with COVID-19, bringing the total to 624.
In the Commons, Mr Hancock also revealed to MPs that 15 social care staff have died with coronavirus, although he did not give a figure of how many care workers have been tested for COVID-19.
In addition, he told MPs there are currently 10,000 spare beds across the NHS, with 3,000 spare beds in critical care wards.
“We want to open the NHS to non-coronavirus symptoms and to patients with non-coronavirus conditions safely and carefully as soon as it is safe to do so,” Mr Hancock said.
He added: “If you think that you might have a lump that might be a cancer, then you should come forward now and you will be safely and properly treated in the NHS.”
Mr Hancock, who has set a target of reaching 100,000 coronavirus tests per day by the end of this month, said he was “delighted” that expansion of testing capacity is “ahead of plans”.
But he admitted demand for tests has “thus far been lower than expected”.
In the 24 hours to 9am on Tuesday, 18,206 tests were carried out despite the government having said they now have capacity for double that number.
The health secretary said the government would be allowing more people to be eligible for tests and would make tests easier to access.
Mr Hancock explained how contact-tracing would now play a key role as the UK overcomes the peak of the coronavirus outbreak, with a new NHS app “in development”.
“As we reach – have reached the peak – and as we bring the number of new cases down, so we will introduce contact tracing at large scale,” he said.
Conservative former health secretary Jeremy Hunt – who is now chair of the Commons health committee – asked whether it would be possible to track and trace every new COVID-19 case in the community in the next two weeks, when ministers are again due to review the lockdown.
Mr Hancock replied: “We are ramping up our testing capacity and our capacity for contact-tracing in a matter of weeks, and we’ll have it ready to make sure that we can use that as and when the incidence of transmission comes down.
“It isn’t as tied to the specific decision that we’re required by law to take in just over two weeks time.
“The effectiveness of test, track and trace to keep the reproductive rate of this virus down is determined by the incidence in the community and our goal is to get to a point where we can test, track and trace everybody who needs it.”
Mr Hancock said the government follow the advice of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) on whether Britons should wear masks in public.
But he downplayed the prospect of every UK household being given masks, as countries like Japan have done.
He said: “I can’t promise that we will give everybody free masks, I mean that would be an extraordinary undertaking, and we do have to make sure that we have supplies available especially for health and social care staff.”