Boris Johnson today faced fresh calls to speed up his lockdown exit roadmap after coronavirus data suggested the UK is now in a similar position to July last year – before vaccines were available – at the point of the last major unlocking.
A Covid Symptom Study, run by ZOE and King’s College London, estimated around 1,924 people were getting ill every day between March 20 to April 3 as the number of Britons with tell-tale Covid symptoms more than halved in a week.
That represented the team’s lowest estimate since August and is down 54 per cent from 4,152 per day the previous week, with the fall coming after a period of levelling off, which experts blamed on schools reopening.
Separately, modelling published by University College London suggested Britain could pass the threshold for herd immunity as soon as Monday next week.
The UCL data suggested that 73.4 per cent of the population will have protection against Covid by April 12, a significantly more optimistic outlook then that of a study published by Imperial College this week which suggested just 34 per cent would have the vital antibody protection by the end of last month.
Meanwhile, Department of Health data released yesterday showed there were 2,763 new lab-confirmed cases and 45 Covid deaths – numbers broadly in line with the picture last summer.
The numbers, as well as the success of the vaccine rollout, have prompted Tory MPs to urge Mr Johnson to speed up the easing of restrictions.
Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the Tory former Cabinet minister, told MailOnline that the exit from lockdown ‘should be quicker’ because the PM’s current roadmap dates are ‘deeply pessimistic’.
Despite the increasingly positive data, Health Secretary Matt Hancock insisted the nation is on the ‘right course’ as he dismissed UCL’s modelling on herd immunity.
Herd immunity is when an infectious disease stops naturally spreading in a population because enough people are protected against the disease.
Mr Hancock 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’.
He defended the Government’s cautious approach and said ‘we have seen what happens when this virus gets going’ with the PM’s plan designed to achieve an ‘irreversible’ return to soemthing close to normal life.
It came as Mr Hancock launched a media blitz to reassure the public over the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine as he insisted the nation’s vaccination drive remains 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’.
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
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
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 coronavirus 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.
Modelling published by UCL suggested the UK is set to pass the threshold for achieving herd immunity.
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.
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 data by SPI-M – whose calculations feed into the Scientific Advisory Group on Emergencies (SAGE).
SAGE released modelling in documents this week suggested 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, 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.
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
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.
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.’
Matt 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 professor 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.
It comes as the UK’s medical regulator today recommended all healthy under-30s should be offered an alternative to AstraZeneca’s Covid vaccine amid mounting evidence that it may cause blood clots in very rare cases.
In a blow to the programme, the Government’s vaccine advisory group recommended healthy people aged 19 to 29 should be offered either the Pfizer or Moderna jabs when the roll-out is expanded.
A review by the drugs watchdog the MHRA found that by the end of March, 79 out of 20million Britons vaccinated with the AstraZeneca jab had suffered deadly blood clots in the brain or arteries – a rate of about one in 250,000. Nineteen of these individuals died and three were under the age of 30.
Anyone who has already had their first dose of the AstraZeneca vaccine, regardless of their age, is being advised to go for their second appointment as planned.
Experts stressed the blood clots were very rare, and England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van Tam said the risk from Covid always outweighs that from vaccine side-effects for older age groups who are more likely to suffer hospitalisation and death if they catch the virus.