NICOLA Sturgeon said there is “no basis whatsoever” to expect that coronavirus deaths will peak in Scotland at Easter.

The First Minister downplayed the predictions after UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock said it was “one perfectly possible outcome” that deaths would crest on April 12 - Easter Sunday - with as many as 1000 deaths a day in the run up to it.

It comes as Mr Hancock urged Britons stay at home this weekend despite forecasts for warm weather, saying the country “absolutely cannot afford to relax social distancing measures”,.

“If we do people will die,” he said.

Scotland’s epidemic curve is trailing London - the UK epicentre - by around six to seven days.

Earlier this week Ms Sturgeon said the Scottish Government was hopeful of seeing a slowdown in the number of new cases “in the next few weeks”.

However, a decline in deaths would lag behind due to the time lapse between people becoming infected and ending up in intensive care.

READ MORE: Early lockdown means Scotland should have lower death rate 

Ms Sturgeon said there was “still a lot of uncertainty around when we can expect the virus to peak”.

She said: “As we gather more data I hope we will be able to offer more certainty about that in the period ahead.

“But I have to be very clear - because I have always said I would be straight with people in these difficult times - I want to be very clear that nothing I have seen gives me any basis whatsoever for predicting that the virus will peak as early as a week’s time here in Scotland.

“I don’t want people to have a false expectation.

“That message is important because I have to ask people to continue to stick with these [lockdown] measures no matter how difficult they are.”

The number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Scotland has nearly tripled in a week, from 1059 to 3,001.

Deaths among patients who tested positive for the infection have also soared in the past seven days, from 33 to 172.

There are currently 1,321 in hospital with confirmed or suspected coronavirus, including 176 in intensive care.

Anonymous sources familiar with the Government’s scientific modelling said projections pointed to the UK experiencing its worst day for deaths on April 12.

Mr Hancock did not deny the claims, however.

“I defer to the scientists on the exact predictions,” he told Sky News. “I’m not going to steer you away from that. That is one perfectly possible outcome.”

However, Professor Jonathan Van Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, said at last night’s Downing Street briefing that it was “too soon to say” if deaths will peak at Easter.

He said: “We don’t know the answer - we will know if our social distancing measures are working a few weeks after they were introduced.”

Just three weeks ago Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK Government’s chief scientific adviser, said peak deaths from the virus “might be 10-14 weeks away”, in late May or June, with the focus on “flattening the curve”.

This was the estimate at the point when the UK first shifted its strategy from containment to delay.

However, just one week later the Prime Minister ordered all pubs, restaurants and other leisure venues to close after new modelling from experts at Imperial College London revealed that the ‘mitigation’ strategy, which leaned towards herd immunity, would cost an estimated 250,000 lives.

The shift to lockdown - or ‘suppression’ - is aimed at bringing the UK death toll under 20,000.

Professor Rowland Kao, chair of Veterinary Epidemiology and Data Science at Edinburgh University’s Roslin Institute, said the peak is now occurring earlier as a direct result of the strict lockdown measures put in place.

Prof Kao said: “What they were proposing at that stage three weeks ago, that herd immunity strategy, was based on less intense social distancing measures, a much more voluntary approach: ‘let’s do enough to protect people and stop the healthcare service becoming overwhelmed, but let’s not overly disrupt the course of business’.

“Yes, that flattens the curve, but it does things in a much more gradual way because it’s relying more on the natural course of the epidemic itself, than on the control measures.

“The drastic change in policy two weeks ago made the control measures the most important thing. Assuming they work really well, you will cut off transmission, fewer people will be getting infected, and in turn dying. But there’s a delay in seeing that impact.

“The time between introducing the control measures and seeing an effect on the fatality rate is quite a long time, and there’s always a bit of randomness in the figures.

“But I would think that figure of around April 12 is based on that timeframe of how long it takes to see an effect on deaths and be sure that it is a real effect, and not something transient.”

READ MORE: Calls for laws to prevent people fleeing to Highlands to escape coronavirus

Prof Kao added that that Scotland’s peak virus deaths could “possibly” coincide with the UK, even though the first case was reported in Scotland four weeks after England, if the infection was now being influenced more by the social distancing restrictions than the natural course of the epidemic.

He said: “In reality it’s probably a mix of the two, but whichever is stronger will determine whether or not we see the downturn mirror the rest of the country or come later.”

This week the World Health Organisation warned of “a near exponential growth in the number of new cases” in the past five weeks, including a doubling of deaths worldwide in the past week.

Public Health England intends to review the UK-wide coronavirus lockdown after the Easter weekend, but there are warnings of a “dangerous second peak” if restrictions lifted too early.

The latest data unveiled Downing Street last night showed dramatic declines in car and public transport use, as well as an 85 per cent reduction in the number of people visiting retail or recreation sites, a 75% reduction people using transit stations, a 55% fall in the number of people in workplaces, and a 40% drop in footfall in grocery stores and pharmacies.

Prof Van Tam said the figures were “very encouraging”, but stressed that the number of new coronavirus cases being detected is still on the rise.

“This remains a dangerous time. It remains vitally important that people continue to stay at home,” he said.

In Scotland, Ms Sturgeon said local authorities will continue to provide childcare for key workers during the Easter holidays as she urged people to continue obeying the lockdown rules.

“This will be a holiday period unlike any other in our lifetimes,” she said. “I know that many people will be thinking about the plans they had made before this epidemic struck.

“I know how hard this is but I also want to stress again today that these restrictions are absolutely essential.”

Ms Sturgeon also stressed that no-one should be asked to sign a do not resuscitate order (DNR) if they do not want to, following reports that an 86-year-old patient in Tayside was sent a form by his GP practice.

Patients can refuse CPR if they wish, meaning medics will not try to restart their heart if it stops.

Ms Sturgeon said: “Nobody, not just in these circumstances but in any circumstances, should be pushed into signing up to anything like that.”

Chief medical officer Dr Catherine Calderwood said there has been no updated guidance on the use of DNRs, although GPs might be discussing them more with patients due to the outbreak.

“There is certainly no protocol, national or otherwise, that would discuss pushing people into a DNR signature.”

It comes after a GP surgery in Wales apologised for sending a DNR letter to patients, saying those with conditions such as incurable cancer or pulmonary fibrosis “will not be offered a ventilator bed” if they fall ill with Covid-19.

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