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One of the UK’s eminent coronavirus scientists has said the nation has now seen the back of the second wave of the pandemic.
It comes as the number of all registered deaths in England and Wales fell below the average for this time of year for the first time in six months.
There were 10,987 deaths from all causes registered in the week ending 12 March, Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures show.
This is 511 deaths (4.4%) below the five-year average of deaths registered during this seven-day period between 2015 and 2019.
And it's the first time since the week ending 4 September that overall deaths have fallen below the five-year average.
Prof Neil Ferguson, whose modelling convinced Boris Johnson to impose the first lockdown on 23 March last year – exactly a year ago – said the data suggests the “second devastating wave of the pandemic is behind us”.
However, he warned this doesn’t mean the pandemic is over, because the decline in deaths has been solely down to lockdown restrictions and the COVID-19 vaccine.
“So while I’m optimistic that this we will be able to return to something more like normal in the next few months, we need to remain vigilant and cautious in the pace with which social distancing is relaxed – particularly given the threat still posed by new variants of the virus.”
England is currently in stage one of its road map out of lockdown. As part of this, gatherings of up to six people or two households will be allowed outdoors from Monday.
Boris Johnson aims to have removed all restrictions on social contact at stage four, on 21 June at the earliest. Coronavirus deaths will be a key aspect of ministers’ thinking when deciding whether to proceed at each stage.
Despite Prof Ferguson’s view that the second wave is over, Johnson warned on Monday that the UK will experience a third wave of infections.
Watch: Boris Johnson says UK will feel impact of third COVID wave from Europe
However, the UK will this time have the advantage of having rolled out one of the world's most successful vaccine programmes, with 28,327,873 people having received a first dose as of Monday.
Nonetheless, England's chief medical officer Prof Chris Whitty has previously warned the next COVID wave will still cause "significant numbers" of deaths later this year, partly because the vaccines are not 100% effective and partly because some people will choose not to, or are unable to, get a jab.
While cases and hospital admissions have dropped to manageable levels in the UK, many European countries are already seeing a third wave of infections driven by the more transmissible UK variant of the virus, first identified in Kent last winter.
Of the world’s 10 countries with the highest rates of new infections per one million people on Monday, seven were European, as this chart from Oxford University’s Our World in Data website demonstrates.
On Thursday last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) said the Kent variant had been identified in 48 of Europe’s 53 countries or territories.
France is among those which have been impacted, with 16 areas including Paris going into a month-long lockdown on Friday.
On Tuesday, meanwhile, German chancellor Angela Merkel said “we basically have a new pandemic” as she announced a lockdown over the Easter holiday.
Watch: How England is leaving lockdown