Matt Hancock warns the spike in infections – fuelled by young Brits – justifies the strict new rule of six.
It compares to just four per 10,000 between July 24 and August 11.
Experts warned against “complacency” and fear the surge in cases will soon translate to a rise in deaths of vulnerable older Brits.
Imperial College London experts tested more than 150,000 volunteers since August 22.
They found 13 people per 10,000 were infected in England in the fortnight up to September 7.
The Imperial study suggests cases are now doubling every seven to eight days, while England’s R rate is 1.7 – and could be as high as 2.5 in the North East.
It means for every person who catches the killer bug, another 1.7 people are infected leading to exponential growth.
In contrast, the weekly update on the R rate from Sage puts England’s value slightly lower, at between 1 and 1.2.
Sage estimates the UK’s R rate is also 1 to 1.2 – with all regions being above 1.
That’s up from their official estimate last week, that put the R rate in the UK between 0.9 and 1.1.
IMPERIAL College London’s REACT study was today hailed an “important
But experts criticised the Government for failing to explain the evidence “in a balanced way to a worried population”.
Dr Thomas House, reader in mathematical statistics at the University of Manchester, said: “While REACT is the research study with the largest number of participants, it involves relatively few positive tests meaning that the weight of evidence presented is not overwhelming and should also be compared to information from testing, hospitals and mortality as well as other studies.”
Prof Paul Hunter, from UEA, said the latest results from Imperial confirm what other datasets are showing.
“The REACT-1 study confirms what has become clear from the daily reports of testing and that is that the number of cases of Covid-19 in the community in England are increasing and are increasing really rapidly.
“It is important to know that this is prevalence (the proportion of people yielding a positive result) and not incidence (the number of new infections/day) so will appear to be rather higher than would be calculated from daily reports.”
Dr Simon Clarke, from Reading University, said the findings are a “massive blow” to the Government’s plan to contain Covid-19.
“It suggests that the recent uptick in cases is not just because of greater testing,” he said.
“It’s likely coronavirus is circulating more freely out in the community again, meaning we are likely to need greater restrictions on our lives to push the transmission rate back down.
“If the R rate is as high as this data suggests, then we could be at risk of being almost back at square one in terms of our ability to contain the virus.
“It suggests the way we are currently living our lives, even with many restrictions still in place, is not enough to keep the R rate below 1, and that more stringent measures will be needed.”
Professor Paul Elliot, director of the programme at Imperial, said: “There has been a very recent resurgence of infection in England.
“Our large and robust dataset clearly shows a concerning trend in coronavirus infections, where cases are growing very quickly across England and are no longer concentrated in key workers.
“What we are seeing is evidence of an epidemic in the community and not a result of increased testing capacity.
“This is a critical time and it’s vital that the public, our health system and policymakers are aware of the situation as we cannot afford complacency.”
The experts at Imperial state that the findings from its report “enforces the need” for the rule of six.
Furious backlash to ‘rule of six’
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the ban on gatherings of more than six people would be enforceable by law.
The new tougher restrictions sparked a furious backlash in Cabinet, as senior ministers railed against the new “rule of six”, the Daily Mail reported.
But Matt Hancock is said to have pushed through the measure with the backing of top scientists.
A Cabinet source told the paper: “Everyone apart from Hancock wanted to see the limit on groups at eight or more.
“Even the PM was initially cautious about taking the limit all the way down to six.
“The majority view was that this level of social distancing will have a huge impact on people’s lives and the economy. But Hancock got his way.”
Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Business Secretary Alok Sharma were both said to have pressed for the limit to be cut to eight, not six.
A Downing Street insider last night insisted the PM had not been pressured into announcing the move.
Appearing alongside the PM at the press conference on Wednesday, Chief Medical Officers, Prof Chris Whitty said that increased testing is not behind the recent rise.
“The numbers are going up, really much more rapidly over the last few days. “
He said at the same time, test positivity rates – the number of positive swabs compared to the number of tests done – are “following exactly the same pattern”.
“This makes it clear it is not just because of increased testing, it is a real phenomenon that we are seeing the number of cases going up.”
R rate could be as high as 2.5 in North West
The rules have come in as experts claim the R rate is on the up in the UK, with some accusing younger generation of spreading the virus.
Across England the rate is 1.7.
Breaking this down regionally and the South East sits between 1.1 and 1.6, the North East is between 1.2 and 2.5, while the North West sits between 1.2 and 1.6.
In Yorkshire it sits between 1.1 and 1.5, the East Midlands sits between 0.9 and 1.3, while the West Midlands sits between 1.0 and 1.5.
The East of England sits between 1.1 and 1.6, London 1.0 and 1.5 and the South West is between 1.1 and 1.8