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U.K.’s Top Scientist Warns Virus Death Toll Isn’t Falling Fast Enough

Joe Mayes and Alex Morales

(Bloomberg) --

Boris Johnson held out hope that the U.K. will be able to reduce its two-meter social distancing rule, even as the top government scientist warned the death toll from coronavirus is not falling as quickly as the authorities would like.

“We want to take some more steps to unlock our society and try to get back to as normal as possible,” Johnson said at a press conference from 10 Downing Street on Wednesday. “Eventually, I would like to do such things as reducing the two-meter rule,” he said, adding that he would only be able to take such measures if the disease abated further in the U.K.

Johnson’s note of optimism jarred with the message of caution coming from the country’s most senior scientific officers and the latest data showing the number of daily reported deaths in the U.K. is only falling slowly.

Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance said the number of new Covid-19 cases is also declining only gradually. While U.K. testers picked up fewer than 2,000 new cases on Tuesday, he estimates the true figure is likely to be about 8,000 once infections the authorities haven’t detected are factored in.

‘Keep Vigilant’

“We have relatively large numbers, still not coming down fast,” Vallance said. “That gives relatively little room for maneuver. It means we have to tread very cautiously.”

The tension between Johnson and the scientists comes as the government has started to relax restrictions it imposed in March to stem the spread of the virus. People are now being encouraged to return to work and are also allowed to meet in the yards of friends and family.

Vallance warned that the so-called “R” number -- which measures the number of other people each infected person passes the virus on to -- remains close to 1, with government efforts focused on keeping it below that threshold. If the figure rises above 1, the virus can begin spreading exponentially again.

“We need to keep vigilant,” Vallance said. “We have to stick with the rules.”

In another development, Business Secretary Alok Sharma has gone into self-isolation and been tested for coronavirus after feeling unwell in the House of Commons, a government spokesperson said in a statement. If other MPs are required to self-isolate, it would add to the pressure on the U.K.’s Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was criticized for requiring them to vote in person in Parliament.

(Updates with Sharma self-isolation details from ninth paragraph.)

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