The coronavirus alert level was downgraded to level four today amid calling cases – but Boris Johnson again rejected calls to bring forward lockdown easing.
The PM denied there was any ‘wiggle room’ to speed up the roadmap and relieve the burden on the economy, despite the shift from the Joint Biosecurity Centre.
In a statement this afternoon, the UK chief medical officers said that the alert can come down from the top grade -signalling that the outbreak has subsided significantly. But they insisted the public should be under ‘no illusions’ that the threat had gone away entirely.
‘Following advice from the Joint Biosecurity Centre and in the light of the most recent data, the four UK Chief Medical Officers and NHS England National Medical Director agree that the UK alert level should move from level 5 to level 4 in all four nations,’ a statement said.
‘The health services across the four nations remain under significant pressure with a high number of patients in hospital, however thanks to the efforts of public we are now seeing numbers consistently declining, and the threat of the NHS and other health services being overwhelmed within 21 days has receded.’
It came as Covid cases in England hit their lowest levels since September. Just 84,310 people tested positive for the coronavirus across the country during the week ending February 17, NHS Test and Trace data revealed today.
That was down 44 per cent in a fortnight and is the lowest number since the week to September 30.
Calls are mounting from Tory MPs to bring forward No10’s lockdown end date of June 21 and give millions of people their freedom before the summer solstice.
But the PM was defiant on a visit to Accrington Academy in Lancashire today, saying the number of people in hospital with Covid remains ‘high’.
Asked whether there was ‘wiggle room’ to lift lockdown quicker, he said: ‘I think it’s very important to have a timetable that is sensible, that is cautious, but one that is also irreversible. And that’s the virtue of the timetable we have set out.’
Despite promising early information about the impact vaccines have on reducing transmission of the virus, the Prime Minister said case numbers were still too high to accelerate easing the lockdown.
‘We’re sticking to our plan. Obviously we will continue to look at data but the data currently still shows, as you know, that the incidence of the disease, sadly, remains high,’ he added.
‘I’m afraid the numbers of people in hospital are still not far below the peak that they were in April last year.
‘So we think that the road map that we’ve set out is a good and balanced one for us to get on a journey that is cautious but, as I say, irreversible as well.’
In a statement this afternoon, the UK chief medical officers said that the Covid alert can come down from the top grade to Level 4 -signalling that the outbreak has subsided significantly
On a visit to a school in the North West today, Boris Johnson denied there was any ‘wiggle room’ to speed up the roadmap and relieve the burden on the economy, despite the shift from the Joint Biosecurity Centre
Just 84,310 people tested positive for the coronavirus across the country during the week ending February 17, NHS Test and Trace data revealed today. This is down 44 per cent in a fortnight and is the lowest number since the week to September 30
CONTACT TRACING HAS ‘RELATIVELY SMALL’ IMPACT ON VIRUS SPREAD
Baroness Harding said in a report to Parliament’s science committee that the act of tracking down people who have been close to Covid-19 cases has only a ‘relatively small’ effect on the R rate of the virus.
The R rate measures how many people each infected person passes the virus on to before they recover. It must stay below 1.0 if an outbreak is to stop growing.
The letter, published this month, estimates that the UK’s entire test, trace and isolate system would keep the R down by between 18 and 33 per cent in a scenario similar to October 2020, when there were an average of 19,000 cases per day.
It became less effective when the outbreak got bigger in November, December and January, and when the fast-spreading new variant took over, Baroness Harding admitted.
She said: ‘The impact of contact tracing alone reduced the R number by 2-5% (with testing and self-isolation accounting for the remaining 16-28%).’
If the R rate were 0.9 – the maximum value for the UK now – a two per cent reduction would cut it to 0.882. A five per cent drop would cut it to 0.855.
In a report published alongside the letter Test and Trace chiefs said it was unlikely the service would improve on this, saying: ‘The impact of contact tracing is relatively small. Even with small changes or improvements to the model, it is not expected that the impact of contact tracing will change drastically. It would remain of the same order of magnitude.’
The admission led critics to question whether NHS Test and Trace’s eye-watering £22billion budget is good value for money.
Mr Johnson went on: ‘Everybody knows the dates: March 8, kids back in school; April 12, shops reopen; May 17, hospitality reopens; June 21, we hope, if all things go according to plan, a general reopening.
‘And I think those are a series of dates towards which people can work, and I think that the people of this country would rather trade some haste for some certainty, and that’s why we’ve done it in the way that we have and we will still continue to stick to that plan.’
Ministers are facing mounting calls for the parts of England with the smallest Covid outbreaks to be released from lockdown earlier, with official data showing cases in the worst-hit areas are seven times higher than in others.
Department of Health data shows parts of Devon, Cornwall and the Isle of Wight recorded fewer than 50 infections per 100,000 people in the week ending February 19. For comparison, the figure was 346.2 in Corby — the nation’s current hotspot.
But under Mr Johnson’s four-stage ‘roadmap’ back to freedom, everyone in England will be forced to move out of lockdown at the same pace and to wait at least five weeks between each change. Ministers have refused to follow Scotland’s path, which will see some areas released sooner than others.
Test and Trace data show that 2.6million people got tested for coronavirus in the most recent week, down from 3million the week before and 3.1million in the first week of February.
The number of positive results has plummeted during the lockdown from a peak of 390,366 coronavirus cases recorded in the first week of January, before the national rules came into force.
A total 84,310 last week marks a 78 per cent drop, with case numbers coming down both in the community and in hospitals.
Virus cases in hospital peaked a week later than in the general population, with a high of 52,911 in the week ending January 13, after Pillar 2 cases – those detected at public testing sites – were highest a week earlier at 343,322.
As the number of people infected with the virus comes down, the Test & Trace service appears to be improving, with 96 per cent of people receiving their test results by the end of the next day
The ‘next day’ results are defined as within 48 hours, however, and the service is still unable to meet Boris Johnson’s ambitious target from the summer.
He told the House of Commons on June 3 he would get ‘all tests turned around within 24 hours by the end of June, except for difficulties with postal tests or insuperable problems like that’.
Some 86.8 per cent of people who were tested for Covid-19 in England in the week ending February 17 at a regional site, local site or mobile testing unit – a so-called ‘in-person’ test – received their result within 24 hours.
This is up slightly from 85.4 per cent in the previous week, and is the highest figure since the week to July 8.
The Department of Health now also records data for rapid tests, known as lateral flow devices, and it found a total of 1,756,402 lateral flow tests were conducted in England in the week to February 17, according to the latest Test and Trace figures.
Flu ‘disappears’ amid Covid chaos
Flu may have almost completely disappeared in England after brutal lockdown curbs thwarted the spread of the virus.
Public Health England has not recorded a single case of the virus so far this year through routine surveillance tests, despite it being the height of the usual flu season.
But this doesn’t mean it has been completely wiped out, health bosses say.
Yet officials are confident flu is barely spreading because only four people admitted to hospitals in England since the start of year were confirmed to have had the virus.
For comparison, 74 patients were admitted with flu during the same week at the start of 2020 — before Covid had taken hold.
However, the figures suggesting flu has been annihilated are from a snapshot of just 25 NHS trusts. Data for the other 100-plus hospitals are not included in the weekly surveillance reports.
This is down from a record 2,401,651 rapid tests in the previous week, which officials said coincided with school half-term holidays.
The quick swab tests are now widely used in schools across the country, with teachers using them regularly to detect asymptomatic Covid cases, and they are also used for mass community testing in many areas.
Health minister Lord Bethell said: ‘Week after week these results continue to have an enormous impact.
‘Thanks to NHS Test and Trace’s continued outstanding performance, we are helping to halt the spread of the virus.
‘Around one in three people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic which means every positive rapid test helps us break a chain of transmission we wouldn’t have otherwise identified.
‘To identify these hidden cases NHS Test and Trace is conducting over 1.7million rapid tests per week, and, since January, this has included all school staff.’
Test and Trace chief Dido Harding added: ‘This has been another strong reporting week for NHS Test and Trace as the service continues to evolve in order to reach high proportion of cases and contacts quickly and conveniently.
‘Since the service was launched, 70million PCR tests in the UK have been conducted – more than one for every person living in the UK, which just demonstrates the current scale of NHS Test and Trace.
‘More than 95 per cent of in-person tests now return results the next day, compared to less than 50 per cent in the week ending 23 December, ensuring we are contacting as many people as possible, as quickly as possible, with the service continuing to improve.’