Coronavirus infections and hospitalisations are at their lowest levels in England since October, new figures show – though health officials have urged the public to “hang on just a few more months” amid concern people are growing increasingly fatigued with lockdown restrictions.
An estimated 1 in 145 people were infected with the virus between 13 and 19 February, according to the latest infection survey published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
That’s equivalent to 373,700 people, this is down from about 1 in 115 for the previous week.
It is the lowest figure since the week up to 8 October 2020, when the estimate stood at 1 in 160 people.
Separate figures from the NHS have shown that 874 people in England were admitted to hospital with Covid-19 on 24 February – the lowest daily total since 19 October, and a drop of 79 per cent from the peak of 4,134 reported on 12 January.
Meanwhile, the UK’s current R rate is estimated to range between 0.6 and 0.9 – unchanged from last week – indicating that the epidemic is continuing to shrink across the four nations.
However, the health secretary, Matt Hancock, warned on Friday that the rates of hospitalisation and deaths are still “far too high”, adding that one in five local authorities has seen a rise in cases over the past week.
“This is on all of us to keep this under control, this is still a deadly virus,” he said during a Downing Street press conference. “We will get through this but we have to stick at it.”
Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s deputy chief medical officer, insisted that the “battle at the moment is not won” as he called upon the public to “maintain discipline” in the weeks ahead.
“There are some worrying signs that people are relaxing, taking their foot off the brake at exactly the wrong time,” he said. “It is a bit like being three-nil up in a game and thinking, ‘We can’t possibly lose this now’ – but how many times have we seen the other side take it four-three?
“Do not wreck this now. It is too early to relax. Just continue to maintain discipline and hang on just a few more months.”
A further 345 deaths and 8,523 cases were reported on Friday, while the government announced that more than 19.1 million people have now received their first vaccine dose – including most frontline health and social care staff, elderly care home residents, clinically extremely vulnerable people and those aged over 70.
Since the start of the pandemic, some 122,415 people in the UK have died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 and a total of 4,163,085 infections have been recorded.
But despite the national fall in rates, evidence suggests that cases are beginning to plateau and even rise in some parts of the country.
The latest data from Public Health England (PHE) shows that 69 of the country’s 315 local authority areas recorded an increase in infections over the most recent seven days.
Dr Susan Hopkins, a senior medical adviser at PHE, explained that the regional disparities are due to occupations. “We are looking into detail at the differences in the regions,” she said on Friday. “Some of the differences we see relate to the occupations and workplaces.”
Prof Van-Tam also expressed his fear that people were beginning to relax after receiving their vaccine.
“All the patients that I vaccinate ... I say to them, ‘Remember, all the rules still apply to you and all of us until we’re in a much safer place’. It doesn’t change because you’ve had your first dose of vaccine,” he said.
“Much as it is encouraging, and much as I am upbeat about vaccines and how they are going to change how we live and what the disease is like between now and the summer, there is a long way to go.”
Addressing reports that the Treasury is considering the reintroduction of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, Prof Van-Tam said “it is likely there will be some transmission” when people gather to eat and socialise, but added that “how much of the bill you have to pay yourself” is a question for the chancellor, Rishi Sunak.
Although the new ONS survey said the number of people testing positive was continuing to fall across the UK, it also warned that infection rates “remain high”.
In Wales, about 1 in 205 people are estimated to have had Covid-19 in the week ending 19 February – down from the previous ONS estimate of 1 in 125.
The figure for Northern Ireland was one in 195 – down from one in 105 – while an estimated 1 in 225 people in Scotland were infected last week.
Infections have also decreased across all age groups in England, though the trend is “uncertain” among school children, the ONS added.
Earlier this week, the UK’s four chief medical officers agreed to lower the Covid-19 alert level from five – its highest – down to four, as the risk of the NHS being overwhelmed within 21 days “has receded”.
According to government data, there are currently 15,485 people in UK hospitals receiving treatment for coronavirus, nearly 3,500 fewer than at the first wave’s peak.
While case rates at the local authority level paint a worrying picture, the ONS figures show there has been an overall decrease in infections across the nine main regions in England, except Yorkshire and the Humber.
Statisticians said there was uncertainty surrounding infection patterns in the region and that caution should be taken in over-interpreting “small movements in the latest trend”.
The northwest recorded the highest proportion of cases in the week up to 19 February, with 1 in 110 people estimated to be infected.
For London the estimate was 1 in 125 and for the West Midlands it was 1 in 140. The other estimates are 1 in 145 for northeast England, 1 in 150 people for the East Midlands, 1 in 175 in southeast England, 1 in 210 people for eastern England, and 1 in 240 in southwest England.
Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at the Open University, said the most recent fall in infections took the numbers “down to where they were around early October last year, when there was already quite a lot of concern about how high they were compared to the position in the summer”.
“However, in October, infections were generally increasing and there was no mass vaccination – now infections are decreasing pretty fast, and millions have been vaccinated already,” he added. “Good news, but there’s still some way to go.”
The ONS data is based on swabs taken from people in households, regardless of whether they have symptoms or not. It does not include care homes, hospitals and other institutional settings.
Because of this, it is seen as a more accurate reflection of the current state of the epidemic in the UK.
Test and trace data released on Thursday showed a 21 per cent decrease in cases from the previous week, but the system does not account for asymptomatic infections within the population – a key driver of the Covid crisis.
The latest estimates from the ONS came as the government announced that people under 50 would be vaccinated by age rather than occupation or ethnicity in the next phase of the UK’s rollout.
Under recommendations laid out by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), people aged between 40 and 49 will be prioritised first, followed by 30- to 39-year-olds before concluding with the 18 to 29 age group.
The JCVI said modelling studies for phase two of the vaccination programme indicated that the speed of vaccine deployment was the most important factor in helping prevent severe illness and death, and that the targeting of certain professions could slow the UK’s rollout.