PUBLIC health chiefs in Cumbria say they have no way of knowing how big the coronavirus outbreak is in the county.

Cumbria County Council confirmed the current lack of information after the authority's Director of Public Health Colin Cox pulled together his own figures for the current scale of infections locally by consulting with hospitals in north and south Cumbria - though he says that cases he has managed to confirm represent only the tip of an iceberg.

Just hours after the official government figures said 22 people in the county were confirmed as having the virus, Mr Cox said he knew of 42 people in Cumbria with covid-19. Nine of them are currently being treated in hospital - three in north Cumbria and six in the south of county.

In a statement, a Cumbria County Council spokesman said: "The national advice to people who suspect that they may have covid-19 is now to self-isolate, without being tested.

"We therefore have no way of knowing how many people actually have Covid-19 in Cumbria. Testing is currently mainly happening for suspected cases in hospital, so the number of confirmed positive tests will be substantially lower than the actual number of positive cases in the County.

"The County Council does not get daily updates from Public Health England about the number of confirmed cases, but is working with our partners in the NHS to establish ways of reporting this locally. The number of cases confirmed in Cumbria stood at 42 as at 11.30 on 18th March."

No details have been released about how seriously ill the hospitalised Cumbrian patients are, or whether any has needed support with breathing.

Half of the cases are in south Cumbria and half in the north and west of Cumbria. “Some of these people will have been the first cases we got to know about and a few will have recovered,” said Mr Cox.

Mr Cox said: “These are figures for people who have been formally tested. They don’t include people who may be potentially positive but who have not been tested.

“There are 21 cases in north Cumbria and 21 in south Cumbria: a total of 42 cases. But the official public data will be out of date.”

As of 9am yesterday, 56,221 people had been tested in the UK, and of these 53,595 were confirmed negative and 2,626 positive. The number of confirmed deaths was 72.

Mr Cox said: “It’s a pandemic for two reasons: firstly it’s a novel [new] virus so nobody has immunity to it.

“Secondly, there’s a figure called its ‘reproduction rate,’ which broadly speaking means how many people are likely to be infected [after contact with each infected person].

“For covid-19, that figure seems to be about three or four people, whereas for seasonal flu it’s one or two people. This virus is more transmissable.”

Professor John Howarth, Deputy Chief Executive of the NHS trust, which runs Carlisle’s Cumberland Infirmary and the West Cumberland Hospital in Whitehaven, said that all non urgent operations are to be put on hold until April 15.

NHS services will come under “intense pressure” as the coronavirus spreads, he said.

He added: “We need to ensure that we have as many beds available as possible to care for patients with severe respiratory problems when the number of infections peaks.

“Therefore every hospital in England has now been asked to suspend all non-urgent elective operations from April 15 for at least three months, with some other procedures likely to be rescheduled before then so we can train our staff and adapt certain areas.” “We are now working through a plan to implement this with our clinical staff in a planned way in the coming weeks. Urgent and emergency cases and cancer treatments will carry on as as normal.

He added: “We will be contacting everyone affected as soon as possible.” Do not call the hospital unless your query is urgent.

“We are doing as much as we can to provide the best care possible to our patients at this unprecedented time.”

The official government figures for covid-19 cases in Cumbria were yesterday at least a week out of date.