By Kate Kelland
LONDON (Reuters) - A third pandemic lockdown appears to be having little impact on rates of COVID-19 in England, researchers warned on Thursday, with prevalence of the disease "very high" and "no evidence of decline" in the first 10 days of renewed restrictions.
Until rates of COVID-19 are reduced substantially, health services "will remain under extreme pressure" and the number of deaths will continue to rise rapidly, researchers leading Imperial College London's REACT-1 prevalence study said.
"The number of COVID-19 in-patients (in hospital) is extremely high at the moment, and we can't expect that to drop unless we can achieve lower levels of prevalence," said Steven Riley, a professor of infectious disease dynamics who co-led the work.
"The fact that (prevalence) is not going down has potentially serious consequences"
Prime Minister Boris Johnson put England into a third national lockdown on Jan. 5, closing bars, restaurants and most schools, and allowing only essential shops to open.
Ministers have appealed to people to stay at home as much as they can to prevent hospitals being overwhelmed and to give authorities time to roll out COVID-19 vaccines to the elderly and those at highest risk.
But presenting his latest data - covering Jan. 6 to Jan. 15 - Riley said prevalence rates were at 1.58%, the highest recorded by the REACT-1 study since it started in May 2020. This is a rise of more than 50% since the last readout in mid-December.
Riley also cautioned against pinning immediate hopes on COVID-19 shots.
"The vaccine is only going to have a very limited impact on prevalence in the short-term," he told reporters.
Paul Elliott, an expert in epidemiology and public health medicine and director of the REACT programme, said the stubborn levels of COVID-19 infection may be in part due to a more transmissible variant of the virus which emerged late last year.
"We've really got to double down on the public health measures - wear face covers, keep your distance and wash your hands," Elliott said. "There will be continued pressure until we can get the prevalence down."
The British government reported a fresh daily record rise in deaths on Wednesday with 1,820 people dying within 28 days of a positive COVID-19 test. However, new infections - at 38,905 - were down from a recent peak of 68,053 on Jan. 8.
The health ministry said the full impact of the lockdown would not yet be reflected in the prevalence figures, but added the survey highlighted the importance of everyone staying at home and following the restrictions.
(Reporting by Kate Kelland. Additional reporting by Alistair Smout. Editing by Marl Potter)