Half of the UK population may already have contracted coronavirus, a sensational study has claimed. 

Academics from the University of Oxford suggested the epidemic began in Britain and Italy at least a month before the first reported death. 

If this turns out to be true, then both nations will have already built up "significant levels of herd immunity", researchers wrote in their report. 

The study has not yet been peer-reviewed. We have read a draft of the study, which called for urgent testing to test its hypothesis. 

"The current epidemic wave in the UK and Italy should have an approximate duration of two to three months, with numbers of deaths lagging behind in time relative to overall infections," the scientists wrote. 

"The results we present suggest the ongoing epidemics in the UK and Italy started at least a month before the first reported death and have already led to the accumulation of significant herd immunity in both countries."

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Study leader Sunetra Gupta, professor of theoretical epidemiology, said that fewer than one in 1,000 people who become infected with the coronavirus will need hospital treatment - a figure substantially lower than previous estimates. 

The UK government's scientific advisors estimated that between 0.5% and 1% of people infected with the virus will die. 

However, the Covid-19 outbreak is currently showing no signs of abating. 

The pandemic has infected more than 424,000 people and killed at least 18,000 across the world.

Professor Stephen Powis, NHS England’s medical director, said the NHS could start testing hundreds of thousands of people per day for Covid-19 within a matter of weeks.

Prof Powis told LBC: “We want to get hundreds of thousands of tests ramped up in the next few weeks per day.”

Asked to clarify whether he really meant hundreds of thousands of tests per day, Prof Powis said: “That’s what we are aiming for. That is what we want to ramp up to, but remember this is a new virus and we’re starting from scratch.

“The kits which are required to do this testing are being manufactured as we speak. We are getting those into the country, we are ramping it up.

“I am talking of hundreds of thousands of tests.

“All of this is ramping up and increasing as we speak but yes, you heard me correctly, we need to get to hundreds of thousands of tests a day, and we will do that over the course of the next few weeks and we will be making tests available to NHS staff within the next few days.”

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Here are the latest coronavirus statistics: 

  • 8,077 people have been confirmed as testing positive for the virus, as of 9am on March 24. This is up 1,427 on the equivalent figure 24 hours earlier, and is the biggest day-on-day increase in the volume of cases since the outbreak began. It also a day-on-day rise of 21%.
  • 90,436 people in the UK have now been tested for coronavirus, of whom 8.9% have been found positive.
  • 422 coronavirus-related deaths had been recorded in the UK as of 9am on March 24. This was a jump of 87 on the equivalent figure 24 hours earlier, and is the largest day-on-day increase in the number of deaths since the outbreak began. There have been 16 deaths in Scotland
  •  In Scotland, Greater Glasgow & Clyde has the highest volume of cases (183), followed by Lanarkshire (75) and Lothian (70).