Graphs presented at a Downing Street news conference tonight showed the proportion of positive tests caused by the new variant appeared to fall across the capital and the South East, and flatten in the East.
Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said that there were ‘early indications of some levelling off’.
He urged people not to ‘over-interpret’ the change but his comments offer a glimmer of hope that the fast-spreading strain can be contained with tough Tier Four rules.
Experts published a terrifying paper last month that suggested even a total national lockdown with school closures – like the one in March 2020 and the one that started today – may not be enough to stop the rampaging virus.
But figures from the Office for National Statistics appears to show Tier Four stops it spreading when schools are closed as well.
It comes in one of Britain’s darkest days of the epidemic so far, with a third national lockdown beginning, a record 60,916 cases confirmed and another 830 people dead.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said one in 50 people in England – more than a million people – are now thought to be infected with the deadly virus.
In a second shred of positive news the PM said that 1.3million people have now been vaccinated against Covid-19 – a quarter of all people over the age of 80.
A graph presented by Professor Chris Whitty showed that the number of people testing positive for the new variant of coronavirus (blue line) appeared to start coming down in London and the South East towards the end of December, although it has risen in other regions
Professor Chris Whitty said this afternoon that the combination of the winter season and the new variant of the coronavirus had led to a ‘very large number indeed’ of people infected with Covid-19
Explaining the trend of cases caused by the new variant of coronavirus, Professor Whitty said today: ‘If we look around England, what we find is that in every area there has been a relative increase in the new variant of this virus that is spreading around the country.
‘Fastest increase in the East of England, London and the South East, but it is now taking off in other areas as well.
‘In some of the areas where it took off to the highest level and Tier Four was brought in during a period when schools were closed, there may be some early indications of some levelling off but I think we shouldn’t over-interpret that.
‘It’s really clear this new variant has been rising in all parts of the country and what we’ve seen is that in the bits of the country that have got some of the lower rates and have previously controlled things, particularly in the North East and North West, for example, the rate of increase in many of these has been higher than in some of the southern areas which have got very high rates already.’
The new variant of the virus, which has a mutated ‘spike’ protein on the outside which makes it better at invading the body, was announced in November.
It has been traced back to someone in Kent in September, which is believed to be the first instance of it anywhere in the world.
It has since spread worldwide and across Britain, causing the UK’s coronavirus infections to surge at the end of 2020.
London School of Hygiene scientists warned in December that the variant could have a transmission rate so much higher than its predecessor that even lockdowns wouldn’t be able to stop it more than doubling the death toll by June.
Britain’s Covid vaccine strategy could increase risk of yet another mutant strain
Britain’s coronavirus vaccination strategy could increase the risk of yet another mutant strain of the virus evolving by giving it more time to mutate.
Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, admitted at a Downing Street briefing today that extending the time between doses could let the virus evolve.
The Government last week unveiled its controversial policy which will see people given a single dose of a Covid jab without a second one lined up.
Both the vaccines approved so far – one made by Pfizer and the other by Oxford University – rely on two doses to be most effective, with them ideally spaced three weeks apart.
But in a scramble to stop the devastating second wave of Covid-19, Britain has abandoned this rule and decided it will extend the gap to 12 weeks so it can give more people a single dose as soon as possible.
The benefit will be that millions more people end up being vaccinated in the coming weeks. But it’s possible the vaccines won’t work as well in the long run.
And Professor Whitty said this afternoon it may also raise the risk that an ‘escaped mutant’ version of the virus evolves to resist immunity produced by the jabs.
They wrote: ‘The increase in transmissibility is likely to lead to a large increase in incidence, with Covid-19 hospitalisations and deaths projected to reach higher levels in 2021 than were observed in 2020 even if regional tiered restrictions implemented before December 19 are maintained.
‘Our estimates suggest that control measures of a similar stringency to the national lockdown in England in November 2020 are unlikely to reduce the effective reproduction rate [R number] to less than one, unless primary schools, secondary schools and universities are closed.’
They continued: ‘We project that large resurgences of the virus are likely to occur following easing of control measures.
‘It may be necessary to greatly accelerate vaccine roll out to have an appreciable impact in suppressing the resulting disease burden.’
Although Professor Whitty said the figures he showed today were only an early hint that the variant might be coming under control, they offered hope.
If they had started to fall or even just flatten under the Tier 4 measures that were in place over Christmas, the new lockdown which began today – the strictest rules since the first lockdown in March – should start to bring cases down.
At the same briefing today Boris Johnson revealed that one in 50 of the population of England – around a million people – are infected with coronavirus as he said 1.3million people have now been vaccinated.
The PM told a Downing Street briefing that the spread of the mutant version of the disease had made lockdown impossible to avoid.
But he insisted the measures can get the situation under control while vaccines are rolled out – dismissing anxiety that he is ‘over-promising’ by claiming the most vulnerable categories can be given jabs by mid-February.
The scale of the problem was underlined in data tonight as the UK reported a record 60,916 cases – up nearly 15 per cent on last Tuesday. The tally of deaths was 830, double the number from last week.
No new cases of the South African Covid variant have been spotted in fortnight
No new cases of the South African Covid variant have been spotted in Britain over the past fortnight, in a glimmer of hope that the highly-contagious mutation has not yet taken root in the country.
Two infections with the mutant form of Covid had been identified on British soil by December 23, Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced before Christmas. Experts warned the two cases were probably ‘just tip of the iceberg’.
But since then no new cases of the variant — called 501.V2 — have been declared by officials. Scientists tracking the constantly-evolving virus admit the strain is ‘difficult to track’, however.
Experts raised concerns over the South African variant because they feared it could be even more infectious than the mutated UK strain currently ripping through the country — called B.1.1.7.
A World Health Organization vaccination boss warned today there was a ‘theoretical concern’ it could get around antibodies triggered by the jabs. But scientists have yet to prove the current crop of vaccines don’t protect against the variant.
Results from rigorous testing are expected within weeks, with some experts saying the mutations are unlikely to have any noticeable impact on vaccines.
But even if they do, scientists say the formula can be tweaked in a matter of days to shield people from mutant strains.
There is no proof that either the South African or UK strains of coronavirus are any more deadly or cause more severe symptoms than previous strains.
Mr Johnson said the total of 1.3million vaccinated so far included 1.1million people in England, and 650,000 people over the age of 80 – 23 per cent of all that age group in England.
‘That means nearly one-in-four of the most vulnerable groups will have in two to three weeks a significant degree of immunity,’ he said.
‘That is why I believe the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation was right to draw up a programme saving the most lives the fastest.’
Professor Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance, chief scientific adviser, confirmed that giving a single dose of the vaccine to more people, rather than the recommended double-dose to half the number, could potentially encourage mutations.
But he said the public health benefits of having more people with some resistance were greater.
‘It is a real worry but quite a small real worry within the system,’ he said. ‘The public health arguments are really strongly in favour.’
Sir Patrick warned that the virus would change anyway and vaccines will need to be altered.
‘The virus probably will mutate… different vaccines will be needed at that point.’
Mr Johnson also struck a gloomy note on schools, refusing to state categorically that they will return before the summer holidays – although he stressed they would be the top priority.
Labour leader Keir Starmer said the crackdown was ‘essential’ and his MPs will support them, effectively guaranteeing their approval in the Commons. But he criticised the government for not changing course sooner and expressed serious doubts about the optimism over distributing vaccines.
‘The prime minister said seven weeks – that’s to allow the vaccination programme to be rolled out for 13 to 14million people,’ Sir Keir said.
‘That’s the ambition of the prime minister. I hope he is not over-promising. It’s going to be a struggle and we need to make this work.’
Just a day after he urged parents to send their children back, Mr Johnson declared in a sombre address from No10 that primary and secondary schools will be shut from today, with only the vulnerable and offspring of key workers allowed to go in.
Nurseries can stay open. But university students are being told to stay at home and study remotely, while GCSE and A-level exams will not go ahead as planned.
Teenagers might not know for weeks how their exams will be replaced, with Ofsted expected to launch a consultation, although government sources said some ‘contingency’ plans had already been considered.
Under the the new guidance, published overnight, non-essential retail, all hospitality, gyms and swimming pools will be ordered to close – with Rishi Sunak due to lay out another package of support today amid growing fears about the impact on the economy.
Cafes, bars and restaurants will be allowed to serve takeaway – but in a tightening from the draconian measures last spring, they will not be allowed to serve any alcohol. Vulnerable people are being told to shield where possible.
The public are once again only allowed to leave home for one of five reasons: to go to work if essential, shop for necessities, exercise – allowed with one other person from another household, care for someone, or to seek medical help or flee threat such as domestic violence.