Researchers at Imperial College London have estimated that the number of COVID-19 cases in the country is doubling on average every seven to eight days. They found that this increase is happening across the country and in several age groups.
Any R rate greater than one means the virus is spreading exponentially in the community.
The government said on Friday it estimated the R rate for the whole of the UK to be between one and 1.2.
Speaking to The Times, Professor Paul Elliott, who led the study at Imperial, denied that the increase could be attributed to more widespread testing.
He said: ‘Our large and strong data set clearly shows a worrying trend in coronavirus infections, where cases are increasing rapidly across England and are no longer concentrated in key workers.
“What we are seeing is evidence of an epidemic in the community and not the result of increased screening capacity.
“This is a critical time and it is vital that the public, our health care system and decision makers are aware of the situation because we cannot afford to be satisfied.”
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Scotland and Wales are introducing similar rules, but they will not apply to children under 12.
Professor Elliot stressed the value of quickly detecting an increase in coronavirus cases so that authorities can respond.
He said: “The really important thing here is that, if you wish, this system has been set up as an early warning system.
“And I think he picked up the signal early.”
The number of UK coronavirus cases is estimated to double every three to four days before the first nationwide lockdown is introduced.
The North East, North West and Yorkshire and the Humber are the areas of England currently most infected.
Cases have increased for all age groups, but are particularly pronounced among 18-24 year olds.
Responding to the increase in cases, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: “We have seen around the world how an increase in cases, initially among young people, is leading to hospitalizations and deaths.
“The pandemic is not over and everyone has a role to play in keeping the virus at bay and avoiding further restrictions.
“It’s so important that everyone obeys the law and socializes in groups of up to six, make space between you and people outside your home, take a test, and self-isolate if you develop symptoms and wash your hands regularly.
“It is essential that you engage with the NHS Test and Trace service if you are contacted to provide details of your close contacts and self-isolate if asked. “