Boris Johnson today faced fresh calls to speed up lockdown easing plans as even more data showed England’s coronavirus outbreak is still in retreat, with cases now at levels not seen since last summer.
Experts tracking the spread of Covid claim the country is still in a similar position as it was in July, when ministers felt confident to relax restrictions even though no one was vaccinated.
But with 31.6million of the most vulnerable Britons now given jabs that are proven to save lives and with all key measures pointing downwards, Tory MPs have urged the Prime Minister to stick to his ‘data not dates’ pledge and move quicker.
Public Health England statistics today showed the Covid outbreak shrunk in every age group and region in England last week. Darlington was the only council to register a slight rise in infections.
And the symptom-tracking app run by King’s College London experts estimated Covid cases had halved in a week across the country, with around 1,500 people falling ill every day.
Separate figures also showed almost 94 per cent of over-70s now have Covid antibodies to fight off the virus, highlighting the enormous success of Britain’s vaccination drive.
Professor Tim Spector, an epidemiologist who leads the KCL study, said: ‘These figures are among the lowest in Europe. Admissions and deaths are also continuing to decline, putting the UK in a similar place to July last year.’
Former Tory cabinet minister Sir Iain Duncan Smith told MailOnline the promising data meant the exit from lockdown ‘should be quicker’ because the Prime Minister’s current roadmap dates are ‘deeply pessimistic’.
But Health Secretary Matt Hancock defended the Government’s cautious approach saying ‘we have seen what happens when this virus gets going’, and added that the roadmap is designed to achieve an ‘irreversible’ return to something close to normal life.
Pubs and restaurants are set to reopen for outdoor service in England on Monday, with shops and hairdressers also again set to be allowed to welcome customers.
But the next shutdown easing is six weeks away, with foreign holidays not set to be permitted until May 17. The earliest date all restrictions could go under Boris’ plan – except masks and social distancing – is June 21.
Public Health England data showed Covid cases fell in every local authority in England last week (right) except Darlington where they rose slightly. PHE data from the week before (left) showed three quarters of councils saw a drop in cases
Covid cases fell in every age group last week, Public Health England’s report revealed today, and are lowest among over-60s. Everyone in this age group has been offered at least one dose of the Covid vaccine
PHE data also revealed cases fell across every region of England last week. Only Darlington registered a slight rise
The number of Britons getting tell-tale Covid symptoms has more than halved in a week, data by ZOE and King’s College London has shown
Experts: Covid vaccines are ‘breaking the link’ between cases and deaths
Coronavirus vaccines are ‘breaking the link’ between cases and deaths, experts behind a major surveillance study tracking England’s outbreak revealed today.
Imperial College London epidemiologists found while Covid infections appeared to have levelled off in early April, fatalities linked to the virus were still falling – which would not have been expected during the first or second wave.
More than 31million Britons – or three in five adults – have already received a jab, with separate experts today suggesting the speedy roll-out could see the UK hit herd immunity – when the virus stops spreading – next month.
The REACT-1 study – which randomly swabbed 140,000 people in the latest round – also suggested Covid cases had more than halved in a month and fallen in every age group, adding the reopening of schools had little impact on the epidemic.
They estimated 0.2 per cent of England’s population, or one in 500, were infected between March 11 and 30 compared to 0.49 per cent in February, a fall of 60 per cent.
The biggest drops were recorded in the South East, where prevalence went from 0.36 per cent in February to 0.07 per cent in March, in London (0.6 to 0.16 per cent), and in the East of England (0.47 to 0.15 per cent).
They also suggested cases may have ‘flattened off’ in early April. But experts said this was nothing to worry about and insisted this was actually ‘good news’ because it means the slight easing of restrictions in late March has not caused a spike.
Boris Johnson has given the go ahead to outdoor pubs and restaurants reopening on Monday, saying his four tests for moving to the next stage of England’s roadmap out of lockdown – including cases still falling and ramping up vaccinations – had been met.
Further relaxations will see foreign holidays allowed from May 17, and the earliest date all restrictions on daily life could be relaxed – excluding face masks and social distancing – is June 21.
Separate data from the Department of Health – which publishes daily case updates – also shows the virus is still in retreat, with cases yesterday dropping by a third to 2,763 compared to last Wednesday.
The latest Covid developments came as:
- Professor Beverley Hunt, an expert in thrombosis and haemostasis at King’s College London, who has been working with the MHRA on the clot cases, said ‘we don’t know whether it’s causal or not’ when it comes to the AstraZeneca vaccine.
- Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford vaccine group, said ‘this is not the time to waver’ over rare blood clots linked to the rollout of the AstraZeneca vaccine because coronavirus cases are rising in Europe and other nations around the world.
- Mr Hancock did not deny that AstraZeneca vaccines manufactured in the UK have been sent to Australia after reports 717,000 doses had been sent.
- Professor Anthony Harnden, the deputy chair of the JCVI, said the clots are ‘extremely rare events – much, much more rare than, for instance, clots due to common drugs that we prescribe such as the contraceptive pill’.
- Professor Steven Riley, an expert from Imperial College London’s Real-Time Assessment of Community Transmission (React-1) study, said its most recent finding that there are increasingly ‘fewer deaths per infection’ in the UK is partly due to the vaccine rollout.
Public Health England data revealed 148 out of 149 councils in England – 99.3 per cent – saw their Covid cases fall in the seven days to April 4. Only Darlington registered a rise, but this was just nine per cent on last week.
The Covid infection rate also dropped below 100 cases per 100,000 residents in every local authority except Barnsley. The vast majority of areas had case numbers above this level in the darkest days of January.
And when the data was broken down by age groups it showed cases had plunged in all age groups and were now lowest among the over-60s (10.9 per 100,000), who have all been offered at least one dose of the vaccine.
Dr Yvonne Doyle, medical director at PHE, said: ‘It is encouraging that the data continue to go in the right direction, but we know how quickly the virus can spread.
‘We have come a long way since the start of the year, and the terrible peak we saw during the winter, largely thanks to the country’s grit and determination.
‘Whatever your plans next week, please remember to follow the rules and take up your vaccine when offered one. Let’s not blow it now.’
Professor Lawrence Young, a virus expert at Warwick University, told MailOnline it was difficult to ‘tease out’ the effects of the vaccines and the long lockdown on transmission rates – but the data was ‘clearly heading in the right direction’.
‘We are clearly seeing a shift in terms of cases and hospitalisations and deaths, which is really encouraging,’ he told MailOnline.
‘This is an effect from vaccination and the enormously long lockdown too – but the big worry is what happens in June when everything goes back to normal more or less.’
When asked whether the UK would soon reach herd immunity – when the virus stops spreading in the community because enough people have antibodies to fight it off – Professor Young said this was unlikely because the vaccine does not give everyone who is injected protection and there are indications immunity may wane over time.
It comes after a University College London model today suggested Britain could pass the threshold for herd immunity – when the virus stops spreading in the community because enough people have immunity – as soon as Monday next week.
Their data claimed 73.4 per cent of the population could have antibodies to fight off the virus by April 12, a significantly more optimistic outlook than a separate Imperial College London study that suggested just 34 per cent may have antibodies by the end of this month.
But the Health Secretary today rubbished the forecast and said he had been ‘told by some scientists that we were going to have herd immunity in May and then in June and then after that’.
Ministers launched a media blitz to reassure the public over the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine today as they insisted the nation’s vaccine drive remained on course to offer all UK adults a jab by the end of July.
Mr Hancock said a decision by UK health chiefs to rule the AstraZeneca jab should not be given to Britons under the age of 30 as experts continue to investigate its link to rare blood clots showed ‘the safety system is working because the regulators can spot even this extremely rare event’.
He said ‘people can take confidence that we have a system that we are extremely careful on the safety front’ but he insisted that ‘when you get the call, get the jab’.
The Government’s vaccine advisory group yesterday ruled that people aged between 18 and 29 should be offered an alternative to AstraZeneca’s vaccine.
Mr Hancock said the UK has ‘more than enough’ Pfizer and Moderna jabs to cover all of the people in that age group who are yet to receive a vaccination – approximately 8.5million.
He said ‘all three vaccines that are in use in the UK are safe and they are safe at all ages’ and that there is simply a ‘preference for the under-30s, if they want to have the Pfizer of Moderna jab instead then they can’.
NHS Test and Trace data released today showed the number of people testing positive for Covid fell by a fifth to 29,293 between March 25 and March 31 compared to the previous week
Some 4.8million people were tested at least once during the week — an 18 per cent fall on the previous week — because some schools shut earlier for Easter
Revellers are pictured in Soho, central London in July last year as pubs, bars and restaurants reopened following the first lockdown
The latest coronavirus developments came as:
Modelling published by UCL suggested the UK is set to pass the threshold for achieving herd immunity potentially as early as next week.
Scientists disagree on what the exact herd immunity threshold is but top US medical official Dr Anthony Fauci has previously suggested it could be as high as 90 per cent.
More proof vaccines are working: Deaths have fallen by 92% in over-80s in England and Wales since peak of the second wave in January
Over-80s Covid deaths have fallen by more than 90 per cent since the peak of the second wave in England and Wales, official figures revealed today in yet more proof that the vaccines are working.
Office for National Statistics data showed 379 fatalities were linked to the virus in the most elderly group in the week ending March 26 — compared to 5,354 during the darkest period of January.
Deaths for those aged 75-79 dropped 93.4 per cent over the same period, compared with falls of 92.4 per cent among those aged 70-74, 90.8 per cent for those aged 65-69 and 83.7 per cent for those aged 60-64.
Experts today said the promising figures could be pinned on the UK’s successful vaccine roll-out, with there now being a greater proportion of Covid-related deaths in younger people than during the second wave.
Around 14 per cent of all Covid victims (98 people) in the most recent week were under the age of 60. For comparison, the figure was around six per cent last autumn (55).
Everyone over 60 has been offered at least one dose of the Covid vaccine in England and Wales, and Department of Health figures show more than 31million Britons — or three in five adults — have received a jab.
The figures come after experts behind a major surveillance study today claimed vaccines were ‘breaking the link’ between cases and deaths, saying Covid fatalities were falling as infections plateaued — a trend that was not seen during either the first or second wave.
ONS statistics also revealed the number of deaths linked to Covid fell by a quarter in the final week of March, after 719 were recorded compared to 963 in the previous seven-day spell.
And fatalities from all causes — including dementia and heart disease — remained below the five-year average for the third week in a row. Experts warned they would drop below the number expected because the pandemic had caused thousands of people to die early.
The UK government’s Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Patrick Vallance quoted a figure of 60 per cent back in March 2020 but scientists now believe it is much higher than that because the virus is more transmissible than previously thought.
Imperial College’s results formed part of the data considered by SPI-M – a government expert advisory group – whose calculations feed into the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE).
SAGE released modelling in documents this week suggesting that lifting lockdown curbs fully in June could lead to more than a thousand deaths a day this summer and push the NHS to the brink again.
But UCL’s data paints a much more optimistic picture. UCL theoretical neuroscientist Professor Karl Friston told The Daily Telegraph: ‘Over 50 per cent of adults have been vaccinated, around 42 per cent of people have now been exposed to the virus and about 10 per cent have pre-existing immunity.
‘When factoring in the estimated efficacy of vaccination in terms of sterilising immunity, this – according to the model – means about 70 per cent of the population are immune.
‘Based upon contact rates at the beginning of the pandemic and estimated transmission risk, this is nearly at the herd immunity threshold.’
But Mr Hancock dismissed the modelling during an interview with LBC Radio this morning. Asked why measures are being eased so slowly given the herd immunity modelling, the Health Secretary replied: ‘Well, I was told by some scientists that we were going to have herd immunity in May and then in June and then after that.’
Asked if he believed the modelling to be ‘exaggerated’, Mr Hancock replied: ‘What I prefer to do is to watch the data. And so we have set out the roadmap, the roadmap is really clear, it is our route back to normal, we are on track to meet the roadmap and that is our goal.
‘Critically, after we take each step like on Monday we are going to be able to go to the pub in the garden.’
Defending the Government’s approach to lifting rules, he added: ‘Well, I think we have taken the right course in plotting our way to freedom and doing it carefully because we want it to be irreversible.
‘We have seen what happens when this virus gets going and we are seeing it getting going right now on the continent and in other parts of the world, some of the scenes are really appalling.
‘And we want to get out of this safely and irreversibly and that is why we set out the roadmap.’
Elsewhere, the latest numbers from the Covid Symptom Study complimented data released by NHS Test and Trace today, which showed the number of people testing positive for Covid fell by a fifth to 29,293 between March 25 and March 31 compared to the previous week.
Some 4.8million people were tested at least once during the week — an 18 per cent fall on the previous week — because some schools shut earlier for Easter.
The fall was a significant drop off compared to the drop seen in the previous week (one per cent) and the week before that (five per cent), suggesting cases are beginning to fall at an increased rate again.
Tim Spector, an epidemiologist at King’s College London and the lead scientist on the Covid Symptom Study, said: ‘According to the latest data, daily new cases of Covid have more than halved over a seven day period, with cases now below 2,000. These figures are among the lowest in Europe.
‘Admissions and deaths are also continuing to decline, putting the UK in a similar place to July last year. It’s unlikely that cases will continue to fall at this pace, but with the vaccinations programme and the weather improving, it’s likely they will remain low.’
The study estimates one in 1,394 people suffered from Covid symptoms last week, with 1,529 people becoming ill per day in England, compared to 316 in Scotland, 79 in Wales and zero in Northern Ireland.
The figures are based on over a million app users reporting their symptoms and so cannot take into account people who get the virus but don’t have symptoms. It also doesn’t include people in hospitals or care homes.
Rates were lowest in the North East of England, with no one developed symptoms, and the East Midlands, where just 92 became ill each day.
They were highest in the Yorkshire and the Humber (454) and London (305), while the East of England was the only other area of the country to see less than a hundred a day (99).
The estimated R rate, measuring the number of people infected by each person with the virus, is close to 0.8 in England and Scotland and just 0.5 in Wales. An R of 1 means the outbreak is neither growing nor shrinking.
SAGE will publish an updated official estimate of the R rate later today. Last week it was thought to be somewhere between 0.8 and 1.
Department of Health data yesterday showed official Covid cases fell by a third in a week to 2,763 yesterday. But deaths rose slightly by two to 45. Hospital admissions are also still falling.
The Office for National Statistics will today publish a new estimate of how many people in the country have the virus.
Last week it was 148,100 — the lowest figure since before the second wave spiralled out of control and down almost 10 per cent on the previous seven-day spell.
Falling case numbers and the continued success of the vaccine rollout have prompted some Tory figures to urge Mr Johnson to speed up the exit from lockdown.
More than 31.7million Britons – or three in five adults – have now received their first dose of the Covid vaccine. A 24-year-old carer became the first person to get the Moderna Covid vaccine in the UK today
But deaths rose slightly after 45 were recorded, which was two more than the same time the week before
Britain today saw its Covid cases dip by a third week-on-week after recording 2,763, compared to the 4,052 from last week
More than HALF of people who test positive for Covid have no symptoms – but fatigue is still most common sign, official data shows
More than half of people who test positive for Covid in the UK suffer no symptoms, official figures revealed today.
Office for National Statistics data showed 53 per cent of those diagnosed with the virus said they had no warning signs — including a fever or cough.
The survey — which looked at 10,000 people across the UK between December and March — suggested asymptomatic transmission is more common than previously feared.
Experts have previously said they believe symptomless people account for a third of all new infections.
Among those that did have symptoms, the ONS data showed fatigue was the most commonly reported symptom, followed by a headache and a cough.
The NHS only lists a temperature, new continuous cough and loss of taste and smell as tell-tale signs of the virus.
Yet fewer than a fifth (18 per cent) of people reported a loss or taste of smell as their only symptom.
Health chiefs have been repeatedly criticised for not including the wide-range of side effects which have been linked to the disease.
Sir Iain told MailOnline he believes the timetable for unlocking the nation is ‘already long and I think it should be quicker’.
‘I think we should be opening up hospitality inside not just outside next week, or certainly very close thereafter and then other stuff cascading directly as a result of that,’ he said.
‘Instead of which I think we are sort of in a peculiar place where we are so cautious now that the idea we were following the data is not correct.
‘We are following assumptions and forecasts. We are not following the data and that has meant therefore that our dates are deeply pessimistic because we are following forecasts.’
Sir Iain said there had been a ‘massive reduction’ in things like hospital occupancy since January while evidence of the impact of the vaccine is increasingly positive.
He said: ‘If you look at all of that, take that as your forecast, where does that take you? And the answer is it takes you to the point where the vaccines are functioning, working, doing their best and there is no evidence of any reason why it should be otherwise so let’s unlock.’
Mr Hancock faced a backlash this week after he claimed a multi-billion pound plan to test everyone for coronavirus twice a week is the only way ‘back to normality’ — despite fears a surge in ‘false positives’ could actually derail the lockdown easing.
The PM and Health Secretary announced a huge expansion of testing with free rapid kits made available to everyone in England from tomorrow.
But Prof Spector warned people to confirm positive rapid test results with a full NHS PCR test to prevent false positives biasing case data and making the pandemic seem larger than it is.
He said: ‘This week the government announced plans to make home-based lateral flow tests accessible as a tactic to catch more cases.
‘According to our own data, five in 1000 of these tests give a false positive result, so we are encouraging people to take a lateral flow test at least twice if positive and confirm it with a full NHS PCR test.
‘However, people also need to know all the 20 symptoms, including sore throat, headache and fatigue, not just the classic three. So if you feel unwell with any of the symptoms of Covid, stay at home and get a test.’
NHS Test and Trace data today showed the number of people testing positive for the virus is beginning to fall at a faster rate again, dropping for the twelfth week in a row.
Positive tests fell from around 37,000 to 29,000 in the weeks March 18 to 24 and March 24 to 31 respectively — a drop of 20.9 per cent.
The fall comes after a period of levelling off, with the most recent data showing falls fell five per cent and one per cent in the two weeks before hand as children returned to the classrooms and testing ballooned.
But test numbers did fall in the most recent week, contributing to the large drop in positive cases. The number of tests fell from 5.8million to 4.8million, as some shool children began their Easter holiday, after peaking at 6.2million in the week from March 11 to March 17.
The positivity rate — a better measure of the pandemic when testing jumps significantly — shows the percentage of tests that were positive in the most recent week has continued to fall.
Just 0.61 per cent of tests were positive in the week ending March 31, down from 0.63 per cent the week before. This figure peaked at 16.7 per cent in the height of the second wave from December 24 to 30.