Health

Britain's Covid R rate is still at lowest ever level and outbreak has HALVED in size in a fortnight


Jonathan Van-Tam tonight urged Britons not to ‘relax’ as the UK heads into a glorious weekend with the first warm weather for months, warning that ‘this is not a battle that we have won yet’.

The deputy chief medical officer for England brought stern warnings to tonight’s Downing Street press conference when he told the public: ‘Do not wreck this now’.

Coronavirus cases are rising in dozens of parts of England, around one in five and mainly in the Midlands and the North, Professor Van-Tam said, and people must continue to follow lockdown rules for as long as they are in place.

He called for the UK to ‘hold our nerve’ and added: ‘I do worry that people think it’s all over. The more they think that when it’s not, the greater the headwind they’re going to give to the vaccine programme and the more at risk will become the milestones set on the road map.’ 

His ‘sobering’ warnings came as data show that Britain’s Covid outbreak is still firmly in retreat, with a catalogue of official figures today piling even more pressure on Boris Johnson to relax lockdown sooner. 

Department of Health bosses recorded another 8,523 coronavirus infections and 345 deaths – with both measures down by roughly a third week-on-week. More than 520,000 vaccines were also dished out, with nearly 19.2million Britons now vaccinated. 

No10’s top scientific advisory panel SAGE estimated the R rate – the average number of people each Covid patient infects – is still at the lowest level since records began in June, staying between 0.6 and 0.9.

Separate statistics from one of the country’s most respected surveillance studies showed England’s outbreak has nearly halved in size over the last fortnight. Office for National Statistics experts estimated 373,700 people would test positive for the virus on any given day in the week ending February 19, or one in 145 residents. In comparison, the figure was almost 700,000 two weeks ago.

But a weekly report from a symptom-tracking app today warned daily cases had risen three per cent in a week, to 9,545 in the seven-day spell ending February 21. SAGE also estimated the R rate has crept up slightly in the South East, North West and the Midlands but insisted the figure is still below the crucial level of one.

Despite the troubling trend, one leading scientist today urged Britons ‘not to panic’ because hospitalisations and Covid deaths were still falling – and said Number 10 was still on track to lift restrictions ‘sooner rather than later’ because the UK is in a similar position to last May.

Professor Tim Spector, the King’s College London epidemiologist who is behind the app, added: ‘The difference this time is, while the variants may be more infectious, we have a vaccine that works and the older age groups are largely protected.’

It comes after two separate reports from Public Health England and NHS Test and Trace yesterday showed the UK’s Covid outbreak has shrunk to levels not seen since mid-September. Britain yesterday downgraded the country’s threat level to 4, which says an epidemic is in ‘general circulation’ and ‘transmission is high or rising exponentially’.

Anti-lockdown Tory MPs are demanding that restrictions must be lifted sooner. Boris Johnson has promised all restrictions will go by June 21 at the earliest, so long as the vaccine drive is successful and continues rolling out hundreds of thousands of doses a day.

The promising figures come amid fears lockdown-wearing Britons will bask in the sunshine this weekend, with temperatures set to reach highs of 55F (13C). Police forces have already warned the public that they will be on patrol to ensure rule-breakers are punished, with the nation still stuck in lockdown.

Jonathan Van-Tam was wheeled out at tonight's Downing Street press conference to give a 'sobering' warning that coronavirus cases are now rising again in dozens of areas of England. He said: 'This is not a battle that we have won yet'

Jonathan Van-Tam was wheeled out at tonight’s Downing Street press conference to give a ‘sobering’ warning that coronavirus cases are now rising again in dozens of areas of England. He said: ‘This is not a battle that we have won yet’

People are pictured sitting on the shingle beach at the Hot Walls in Portsmouth, Hampshire today as they enjoyed the sunshine despite lockdown rules dictating that people should only go out for exercise or shopping

People are pictured sitting on the shingle beach at the Hot Walls in Portsmouth, Hampshire today as they enjoyed the sunshine despite lockdown rules dictating that people should only go out for exercise or shopping

The public enjoyed the clear blue skies and warm sunshine as they sat on the seafront benches at Weymouth in Dorset this afternoon

The public enjoyed the clear blue skies and warm sunshine as they sat on the seafront benches at Weymouth in Dorset this afternoon

The Office for National Statistics found Covid cases had halved in a fortnight across England. It said 373,300 would be detected in any given day over the period to February 19

The Office for National Statistics found Covid cases had halved in a fortnight across England. It said 373,300 would be detected in any given day over the period to February 19

Professor Van-Tam’s warning came as lockdown-weary Britons headed to the beach and basked in 55F sunshine today as police faced a losing battle to enforce stringent rules.

Crowds were pictured at the coast in Portsmouth, Brighton and Weymouth in today’s spring sunshine and the coming days are expected to be warm for a lot of the country.

But despite a sunny outlook for Britain’s easing of lockdown – Professor Van-Tam said he was ‘really very upbeat’ about the progress of the vaccination programme – he warned the virus was still at large. 

He said that there ‘were quite a few areas of the UK that are burning quite hot’ with rising infection rates, including in the Midlands and spreading up to the north west coast of England.

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‘Although it is generally good news, I’m afraid it is better news in some places than it is in others and this is not a battle that we have won yet,’ Professor Van-Tam said.

‘In some parts of the UK, case rates are changing, albeit slowly, in the wrong direction. This is not a good sign and reinforces the fact that I’m afraid this battle at the moment is not won.’ 

Department of Health data show that almost one in four local authorities in the UK – 98 out of 380 – saw their Covid infection rates rise over the week to February 21, the latest available.

And when the data was broken down by England only it revealed less than one in five local authorities – 71 out of 315 – saw a rise in Covid infections over the same week.

Cases rose fastest in Rutland, near Leicestershire, where they ticked upwards by 87 per cent in a week, followed by East Lothian in Scotland, up by 81 per cent, and Mid and East Antrim in Northern Ireland, up by 80 per cent.

Rutland’s high infection rate has previously been linked to an outbreak in its prison – HMP Stocken – which drove up the case count in the local area. Scotland reopened primary schools on Monday, but it is not clear whether this is driving a rise in infections.

The vast majority of council areas were, however, still recording falling infections during the country’s lockdowns. The sharpest drop was in West Devon, down 67 per cent, followed by Argyll and Bute, in Scotland, and Winchester, in Hampshire, where they dropped by 60 per cent.

In other coronavirus news:

  • Ministers are drawing up plans for a night-time Covid jab drive for Muslims during Ramadan in April;
  • Police chief accuses minister of not caring about key workers by sticking with age-based approach and not bumping them up the queue;
  • Opening windows would be ‘much more effective’ at cutting spread of Covid than getting children to wear face masks, Sage expert says;
  • Long Covid sufferers could have symptoms alleviated by vaccines, anecdotal reports suggest;
  • Single dose of Pfizer vaccine blocks tree-quarters of symptomless infections, study on NHS staff finds;
  • Top doctor urges for France to enter lockdown amid spiralling cases and a lagging vaccine rollout in the European Union;
  • Rishi Sunak faces Tory backlash over plans to mount ‘stealth’ raid on wealthy pensioners in budget. 
Jonathan Van-Tam said some parts of the UK were still 'burning hot' with high infection rates - places in dark blue on the map have the highest number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 people

Jonathan Van-Tam said some parts of the UK were still ‘burning hot’ with high infection rates – places in dark blue on the map have the highest number of coronavirus cases per 100,000 people

Cases are rising in a significant number of places in the UK, data show - JVT said: 'In some parts of the UK, case rates are changing, albeit slowly, in the wrong direction. This is not a good sign and reinforces the fact that I¿m afraid this battle at the moment is not won'

Cases are rising in a significant number of places in the UK, data show – JVT said: ‘In some parts of the UK, case rates are changing, albeit slowly, in the wrong direction. This is not a good sign and reinforces the fact that I’m afraid this battle at the moment is not won’

The number of people infected with coronavirus at any one time, according to the Office for National Statistics, has plummeted since the beginning of the year and is now at around one in every 145 people

The number of people infected with coronavirus at any one time, according to the Office for National Statistics, has plummeted since the beginning of the year and is now at around one in every 145 people

The Government today confirmed it would continue with an 'age-based rollout' for Covid vaccines and move onto people in their 40s when the top nine priority groups are completed in April

The Government today confirmed it would continue with an ‘age-based rollout’ for Covid vaccines and move onto people in their 40s when the top nine priority groups are completed in April

The ZOE Covid Symptom Study app said daily infections had started to plateau in the UK. It estimated there were 9,545 in the week to February 21, which was three per cent up on the same time last week

The ZOE Covid Symptom Study app said daily infections had started to plateau in the UK. It estimated there were 9,545 in the week to February 21, which was three per cent up on the same time last week 

In England an estimated 1 in 145 people had the virus. This was the highest proportion out of the four nations of the UK. It was followed by Northern Ireland (1 in 195), Wales (1 in 205) and Scotland (1 in 225)

In England an estimated 1 in 145 people had the virus. This was the highest proportion out of the four nations of the UK. It was followed by Northern Ireland (1 in 195), Wales (1 in 205) and Scotland (1 in 225) 

The ONS also said Covid cases were falling in every region except for Yorkshire and the Humber, where they have plateaued

The ONS also said Covid cases were falling in every region except for Yorkshire and the Humber, where they have plateaued

And they found infections were still dropping in every age group except school age children and those under-24s

And they found infections were still dropping in every age group except school age children and those under-24s

Above is a map showing the spread of the virus across the UK, as estimated by the ONS. Their figures are taken as the gold standard by ministers because they are based on hundreds of thousands of random swabs across the country

Above is a map showing the spread of the virus across the UK, as estimated by the ONS. Their figures are taken as the gold standard by ministers because they are based on hundreds of thousands of random swabs across the country

ZOE Covid Symptom Study app estimates show Covid cases have started to plateau in the UK after it said there were 9,545 new infections a day last week, a three per cent rise on the previous seven-day spell

ZOE Covid Symptom Study app estimates show Covid cases have started to plateau in the UK after it said there were 9,545 new infections a day last week, a three per cent rise on the previous seven-day spell

But it added that infections continued to fall among over-60s (brown line) who are most at risk of being hospitalised or dying if they catch the disease. Infection rates were highest among those aged 20 to 49

But it added that infections continued to fall among over-60s (brown line) who are most at risk of being hospitalised or dying if they catch the disease. Infection rates were highest among those aged 20 to 49

WHAT’S THE R RATE IN MY AREA? LEVEL REMAINS BELOW ONE ACROSS THE COUNTRY

UK

England

East of England

London

Midlands

NE, Yorkshire

North West

South East

South West 

0.6 to 0.9

0.7 to 0.9

0.6 to 0.8

0.6 to 0.8

0.7 to 0.9

0.7 to 0.9

0.7 to 0.9

0.7 to 0.9

0.6 to 0.8 

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-6% to -2%

-5% to -3%

-7% to -4%

-8% to -5%

-6% to -3%

-5% to -2%

-6% to -2%

-5% to -2%

-7% to -4% 

Source: Sage experts estimates published by the Department of Health

Experts on SAGE, whose advice has guided ministers through the pandemic, said the R rate was below one in every region of the country.

It was lowest in the East of England and London – which both entered stringent measures fastest in response to the second wave – and the South West, where infections have remained lower than in the rest of the country.

And it was the highest in the Midlands, North East and Yorkshire, North West and South East. 

Several studies have suggested Covid cases could be plateauing in the Yorkshire region. 

The ONS infection survey – considered one of the most accurate ways of tracking the size of the Covid outbreak in Britain – estimated the number of infections in the UK using random swabbing of more than 100,000 people.

The measure is seen as the gold-standard by ministers because it can pick up asymptomatic infections that are missed by testing, and also account for those that don’t come forward for a swab because they do not want to be asked to self-isolate.

In England it found infection rates continued to dip in all regions except Yorkshire and the Humber, where they had plateaued. 

Across the country it found the positivity rate – the proportion of all swabs estimated that would be positive – was highest in England, where it was 0.69 per cent – equivalent to one in 145 people having Covid. 

The rate was 0.52 per cent in Northern Ireland, 0.48 per cent in Wales and 0.45 per cent in Scotland. 

The ONS also predicted the infection rate across the country was lowest among over-70s, who are most at risk of hospitalisation or death if they catch the virus. It is not clear whether this is due to the vaccine rollout, but scientists say they are starting to see signs the jabs are preventing infections and transmission. 

The second lowest rate was among children aged two to 11, but this was a slight rise from the levels seen last week.

The Kent variant of the virus was also still the dominant strain across the UK, and in all four nations. There are now more than 200 cases of the South African variant – which can make jabs less effective – in the country, and ministers are attempting to snuff out the outbreaks by testing everyone in postcodes where they were detected.

The ONS survey found the more infectious Kent variant of the virus was still the dominant strain in all four nations

The ONS survey found the more infectious Kent variant of the virus was still the dominant strain in all four nations

The variant was also found to be dominant in all regions of England. Cases have plateaued in Yorkshire and the Humber

The variant was also found to be dominant in all regions of England. Cases have plateaued in Yorkshire and the Humber

Positive test rates fell in 147 out of 149 areas in England in the week to February 14, rising only in North East Lincolnshire and Tameside
In the week to February 21, 15 out of 149 areas saw their positive coronavirus test rate increase

Public Health England data show that nine out of 10 areas had shrinking outbreaks up to Sunday, February 21, but some saw significant growth, with cases almost doubling in Rutland from the previous week (ending February 14)

Public Health England data show that September 20 (week 38) was the last time that cases were lower in every region and every age group than they are now

Public Health England data show that September 20 (week 38) was the last time that cases were lower in every region and every age group than they are now

Just 84,310 people tested positive for the coronavirus across the country during the week ending February 17, NHS Test and Trace data revealed yesterday. This is down 44 per cent in a fortnight and is the lowest number since week to September 30

Just 84,310 people tested positive for the coronavirus across the country during the week ending February 17, NHS Test and Trace data revealed yesterday. This is down 44 per cent in a fortnight and is the lowest number since week to September 30

Teachers and police will NOT jump Covid vaccine queue when roll-out is expanded 

Teachers and police will not be bumped up the Covid vaccine priority list and people in their 40s will be next in line once the NHS has made its way through 32million people in the top nine priority groups, the Government confirmed today.

Ministers confirmed they will follow the ‘age-based rollout’ recommended by experts, taking a decade at a time down to age 18 rather than offering people vaccines based on their job, ethnicity or whether they’re obese.

Trying to offer jabs to key workers such as teachers or police officers first, the JCVI advisory group said, ‘would be more complex to deliver and may slow down the vaccine programme’. Health Secretary Matt Hancock will confirm the update at a 5pm press conference tonight.

Police and teaching unions are outraged at being left out of the next phase, however, with the Metropolitan Police Federation chief Ken Marsh saying he was ‘shocked’ and accusing the Government of ‘creating a super-spreader situation’ with officers unable to follow social distancing while at work. The Association of School and College Leaders’ general secretary, Geoff Barton, told the BBC he was disappointed and jabbing teachers was ‘important’. 

More than 18.7million people in the UK have already had at least one dose of a Covid vaccine and Boris Johnson said he aims to have reached everyone in the top nine priority groups by April 15. If this is achieved it will mean half of the population of Britain – and a group accounting for almost all Covid deaths – have been immunised, paving the way for people in their 40s to get jabbed in mid-April.

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The programme will then aim to offer a jab to every adult in the country by the end of July, roughly coinciding with the ambition to totally lift lockdown at the end of June.

The ZOE Covid symptom study also estimated the R rate – which measures the spread of the virus – for the UK and each of the devolved administrations. 

The symptom-tracking figures are based on reports from more than a million Britons on whether they are feeling unwell, and if they have tested positive for the virus. The system can only pick up symptomatic cases, and misses those where someone gets infected but does not suffer any warning signs – estimated to be at least a third of all cases 

They said it may now be at the crucial level of one in the UK (0.9 to 1.0), suggesting cases are no longer falling. In Wales it may be 0.9, they said, while in England it could be 1.0 and in Scotland 1.1.

The scientists behind the app updated their formula for calculating the estimated number of daily infections this week, to take into account the after-effects of vaccination. Some jabs can trigger Covid-like symptoms including fever and headaches, which can skew the results of estimated infections.

Professor Spector, from King’s College London, said: ‘The data over the last few weeks shows that the daily new cases have started to plateau at just under 10,000 cases but this isn’t reason to panic. 

‘The key metric isn’t just the total number of cases, which is mainly among people of working age. We need to focus on the pressure on the NHS and the number of admissions and deaths, which are both still falling rapidly. 

‘We are in a similar situation to late May last year, just before restrictions were lifted but the difference this time is, while the variants may be more infectious, we have a vaccine that works and the older age groups are largely protected. 

‘Having some residual infections in the population is inevitable for a while and although we want to push it lower, it shouldn’t be a major cause for concern. 

‘With decisions now being made on data rather than dates, it feels like we on track to lift restrictions sooner rather than later.’

Data from NHS Test and Trace published yesterday showed just 84,310 people tested positive nationwide in the week to last Wednesday, a drop of almost half from 149,000 two weeks earlier.

The number of positive results has plummeted during the lockdown from a peak of 390,366 coronavirus cases recorded in the first week of January, before the national rules came into force.

More recent Public Health England figures showed a similar decline, and also revealed nine out of 10 areas had shrinking outbreaks up to Sunday, February 21. But some did see significant growth – with cases almost doubling in Rutland.

September 20 was the last time that cases were lower in every region and every age group than they are now.

The biggest declines in positive tests per 100,000 people were seen in the Isle of Wight, Bath, Gloucestershire and the London boroughs of Lewisham and Bromley, which all saw their infection numbers fall by between 37 and 57 per cent.

But the 15 places where infection rates increased on the previous week were Rutland, Swindon, Herefordshire, Hartlepool, Bradford, Bury, Sheffield, North East Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire, Kirklees, Leeds, Rochdale, Southampton, East Riding of Yorkshire and Wakefield.

They saw positive test rates rise by anywhere between 0.3 per cent (Wakefield) and 87 per cent (Rutland).

Rutland, close to Leicestershire in the East Midlands, now has an infection rate of 243 positive tests per 100,000 people. 

This makes it the fourth worst affected place in the country, behind Peterborough, Sandwell and Leicester.

NHS England statistics going up to February 21 show 15 areas of the country have vaccinated more than half of all residents. But as the country moved into the second stage of the rollout last Monday ¿ moving down the age brackets from the current 65 to 69-year-olds group ¿ the disparity in vaccine distribution across the country has come to light. Pictured: The top five and bottom five performing areas. Data is based on MailOnline's analysis of the NHS figures as well as Office for National Statistics population estimates for nearly 7,000 districts in England

NHS England statistics going up to February 21 show 15 areas of the country have vaccinated more than half of all residents. But as the country moved into the second stage of the rollout last Monday – moving down the age brackets from the current 65 to 69-year-olds group – the disparity in vaccine distribution across the country has come to light. Pictured: The top five and bottom five performing areas. Data is based on MailOnline’s analysis of the NHS figures as well as Office for National Statistics population estimates for nearly 7,000 districts in England

As well as its area-by-area breakdown, Public Health England’s numbers also show that positive test numbers are down across most regions and all age groups in the most recent week.

Yorkshire and the Humber was the only region where the infection rate stayed flat.

With this exception and a two-week hiccup in the North West in December, all regions have lower positive test rates than at any time since October or September.

And age group categories all also have significantly lower rates than they did over the winter peak.

Among 20 to 29-year-olds, who had the highest infection rate of all during the second wave – at 939 positives per 100,000, almost one per cent of the population in the first week of January – the number of cases has dropped to just a sixth of its peak, to 157 per 100,000.



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