Deaths from coronavirus hit a grim record on Tuesday, with daily fatalities reaching a high of 1,610 across the UK as a government scientific adviser warned that it could be weeks before significant reductions are seen.
The highest daily toll of the pandemic brought the total official figure for deaths above 90,000. But a separate measure of death certificates which mentioned Covid-19 put the total at 108,000.
Antibody data suggested that one in eight people in England had been infected with coronavirus at some point in the pandemic up to December, in what one expert described as “one of the worst coronavirus problems in the world”.
Boris Johnson told his cabinet that while infection rates were declining, the UK remains in a “very serious” situation, with the swift rollout of vaccines the key to reducing pressure on the NHS and reopening society.
But vaccination rates fell for the third successive day, with 204,076 first jabs in the UK over a 24-hour period – well below the 324,000 achieved at the end of last week.
In all, some 4,266,577 people – around one in 15 of the population – have received their first dose of a vaccine, as the government began rollout to over-70s and people with serious underlying health conditions.
Reported positive cases of Covid-19 continued to slide, reaching 33,335 on Tuesday – less than half the 68,000 recorded on 8 January – bringing the seven-day total 22 per cent below the previous week.
Watch: Coronavirus in numbers - UK death toll reaches 93,290
But epidemiology professor Andrew Hayward of University College London told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme it could be weeks before this decline fed through into hospitalisation and death figures.
“We have seen a clear decline in the number of new infections, particularly in the younger age groups,” said Prof Hayward, a member of the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage).
“Unfortunately the decline has not been as marked in the older age groups. And of course those age groups are the ones that will comprise the majority of the hospitalisations, so it still may be a few weeks before we see death rates coming down substantially could be weeks.
“I think it’s really bleak news. We have one of the worst coronavirus problems in the world at the moment and we need to do everything we can to bring rates down.”
Alison Pittard, dean of the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine, said pressure on the NHS remained high, warning: “We’re nowhere near out of this at the moment.”
She told Sky News: “There are many intensive care units and hospitals around the country that are already overwhelmed – seeing unprecedented numbers of cases, large numbers of very, very sick people, many of whom are dying.
“And there are staff who are almost on their knees, having been going through this non-stop for months and months and months.”
In Scotland, first minister Nicola Sturgeon extended lockdown to at least the middle of February, with schools remaining closed to the majority of pupils.
And England’s deputy chief medical officer suggested there may be a staggered reopening of schools south of the border, reflecting regional infection figures.
“I think it’s likely that we will have some sort of regional separation of interventions,” Dr Jenny Harries told the Commons Education Committee.
“It is highly likely that when we come out of this national lockdown we will not have consistent patterns of infection in our communities across the country.”
Watch: PM warns more Covid deaths in 'tough weeks to come'
The prime minister’s official spokesperson said Mr Johnson had previously stated “the priority is to get schools open as soon as possible, but whether that is after the half-term break depends on a number of things” including progress in the vaccination programme and the possibility of a new coronavirus variant emerging which resists the jab.
Meanwhile, Sage adviser Dr David Halpern warned of a “day before the armistice” effect which might see people relax their guard on social distancing and hygiene immediately after receiving a vaccination, not realising it takes some time to take effect.
“We definitely do worry that people feel that, the second they have got that vaccination, they are good to go,” Dr Halpern told MPs.
“People are going to be overconfident, too fast on the vaccine.”
In other developments:
- Health secretary Matt Hancock announced he was going into self-isolation, after being “pinged” by the NHS Test and Trace app as a close contact of a positive coronavirus case.
- Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick said she was “baffled” that under current plans she would be offered immunisation as an over-50 ahead of frontline police officers who come into contact with the public on a daily basis.
- Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford said the principality could receive a larger share of vaccines in future because it has an older population.
- Up to 2,000 people working in the vaccine supply chain will be offered jabs to help maintain the flow of doses
- NHS England said 400 military personnel were now working on general duties alongside doctors and nurses in hospitals across London and the Midlands.
Awful. Horrific. Devastating. And it didn’t have to be like this. https://t.co/ifeieSojsT
— Jonathan Ashworth 😷💙 (@JonAshworth) January 19, 2021
Responding to the record daily death toll, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “The climbing record death rate is a tragic reminder of how devastating this virus is. Behind every statistic is a family grieving and in pain.
“It didn’t have to be like this. Every effort must be made to suppress Covid, minimise sickness, and save lives.”
And medical director at Public Health England, Dr Yvonne Doyle, said: “Whilst there are some early signs that show our sacrifices are working, we must continue to strictly abide by the measures in place.
“By reducing our contacts and staying at home we will see a fall in the number of infections over time.”