The crucial reproduction rate of the coronavirus, the so called “R” number, has crept closer to 1, which is the threshold the government has said it must not cross. Last week, it was between 0.5 and 0.9, but now it’s between 0.7 and 1.0, according to government’s scientific advisers. R represents the number of people somebody with the virus infects, and a value of more than 1 would cause the number of new daily cases to rise.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock appeared unconcerned at this afternoon’s Downing Street briefing. The value is still below 1, and besides, models that predict R are using data for a few weeks ago, he said. England’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries added that R was an “incredibly important figure, but it’s one data point to look at”, and that the “real outcome we’re looking for is a reduction in the number of cases”. Plus, the value is an average across the country, and will vary from region to region, as well as between the community and clinical settings such as care homes and hospitals (the experts indicate R is much lower in the community than elsewhere).
But questions around R will not, and should not, go away. What happens if next week’s R estimate ranges from 0.8 to 1.1? Does the government pump the breaks on its plan to lift lockdown? It seems unlikely. Over the coming weeks, ministers will have to do a better job of explaining the nuances, and difficulties, of using R to make policy.
In other news, the government said it had no plans to introduce personal protective equipment for teachers in schools (ministers are still on a collision course with unions over the 1 June date for primary school openings), and new figures showed that more than a quarter of all recent care home deaths have involved Covid-19.