Britain’s coronavirus R rate has fallen for the fourth week in a row and could now be as low as 0.8, SAGE said today, suggesting that November’s lockdown made the outbreak shrink faster than at any time since August.
The report estimated that a total of 521,300 people were carrying the virus in England on November 28, down from 665,000 just two weeks earlier.
It proves the country’s second wave is in retreat and that lockdown worked. The national measures were lifted on Wednesday this week as the nation returned to its three-tier local system.
SAGE said its R rate calculation – which shows how many people each coronavirus-infected person gives the virus to – proved cases were now declining in every region. It said: ‘Estimates of R and growth rates have fallen slightly in recent weeks, and estimated ranges for all NHS England regions have decreased compared to last week. It is the first time since early September that all English regions have had a lower limit of R estimates below 1.’
Separate infection estimates produced by the Covid Symptom Study suggest there are now just 15,845 people developing symptoms of coronavirus each day in England, down from a peak of 44,000 at the end of October. Although the numbers are different to those made by the ONS, they illustrate the same downward trend.
Professor Tim Spector, the King’s College epidemiologist running that study, which is based on data from a public mobile app, said the signs were ‘encouraging’, adding: ‘We’re now [at] less than half the peak of the second wave we saw in October.’
The good news comes as the UK gets set to become the first country in the world to start vaccinating people against Covid-19 next week after drug regulators gave the green light for a jab developed by pharmaceutical firms Pfizer and BioNTech. The first doses were delivered on British soil yesterday via a convoy of lorries from Belgium.
SAGE’s estimate of the R rate is based on different types of data including new infections, numbers of people going into hospital and the numbers of people dying.
When the number is published it is usually accurate for around two to three weeks beforehand because of how long it takes for changes in infection rates to show up in data. Last week, the estimate was 0.9 to 1.1, and the week before it was 1.0 to 1.1.
HOW IS THE OUTBREAK DIFFERENT ACROSS THE COUNTRY?
Regional differences across England show that some parts of the country are being hit far harder than others during the second wave of coronavirus.
The R rate is produced by SAGE; daily infections by the Covid Symptom Study; and percentage of people infected by the ONS.
Not all are collected in the same way or using the exact same time frame, but illustrate an approximately consistent picture that cases are highest but declining fastest in the North, while lower but shrinking more slowly in the South.
% of people carrying coronavirus
0.9 – 1.0
0.8 – 1.1
0.8 – 0.9
0.7 – 0.9
0.7 – 0.9
0.9 – 1.1
0.7 – 1.0
1.1 – 1.2%
1.6 – 1.7%
It has now fallen for four weeks in a row and the fact that it could be as low as 0.8 suggests the virus is spreading slower than at any time since August.
SAGE said: ‘Most of the impact of the national restrictions introduced in England on 5th November are now observable in the data… While R has decreased from the levels estimated in previous weeks, estimates may continue to decline further next week as the full effect of national restrictions are reflected in the data.’
The ONS’s mass testing programme, which took results from 217,411 swabs in the two weeks until November 28, found that 0.96 per cent of people were testing positive.
This is equal to around one in every 105 people and is the first time the positivity rate has been below one per cent since early October.
Cases are still highest in the North of England. In Yorkshire and the Humber, which was worst affected as the country emerged from lockdown, 1.7 per cent of people tested positive – one in 59.
North East, North West, East Midlands and West Midlands all also had rates higher than the England average, which was one per cent exactly.
The southern regions all had lower positive test rates, with the lowest in the East of England where it was 0.4 per cent.
ONS experts wrote in their report: ‘Over the most recent week, the percentage of people testing positive has decreased in all regions, except the North East; rates are highest in the North East, the North West and Yorkshire and the Humber.’
The separate Covid Symptom Study, run by health-tech company ZOE and King’s College London researchers, predicts that the R rate is at 0.8 across the UK and that the most daily cases are appearing in London, with 3,379 per day in the two weeks up to last Sunday, November 29.
It creates estimates using the self-reported test results and symptoms from a million users of the Covid Symptom Tracker app. The team suggest there are about 40,000 people in the UK right now with symptomatic Covid-19.
King’s College epidemiologist and leader of the project, Professor Tim Spector, said today: ‘It’s encouraging to see rates are still falling across most of the UK, and we’re now below 21,000 cases, less than half the peak of the second wave we saw in October.
‘However, while we are also seeing steady falls in admissions now, it’s important that we aren’t complacent.
‘Even though the UK will start the vaccine roll out next week, many of us won’t be getting one for a few months, so keeping the numbers low and under control is really important for the NHS.’
In more positive signs that lockdown worked as intended, Public Health England data published yesterday revealed that only nine out of 149 local authorities in the country saw infection rates rise in the most recent week.
None of the boroughs were in the North, with the areas seeing a rise in diagnosed cases being scattered across London and Kent, as well as Southend in Essex and Bracknell Forest in Berkshire.
NHS STAFF BUMPED DOWN COVID VACCINE PRIORITY LIST
Frontline NHS workers will no longer be prioritised for the coronavirus vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech, which Britain expects to start using within days.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said the initial supply will still be directed at the elderly and care home staff, as was originally planned.
There had been confusion over who would be front of the queue for the jabs after it emerged that doctors wouldn’t be able to take them into care homes unless drug regulators gave specific permission for them to be taken out of the freezer and transported there.
In a quick shakeup announced in the week, officials said that if this couldn’t be arranged in time, elderly hospital patients and care workers would get the jab first, with spare doses given to NHS staff.
But the final hurdle for care homes was cleared last night after officials devised a way to split the Pfizer vaccine into small batches suitable for distribution.
NHS bosses admitted the ban on pack-splitting was the only thing holding up getting the jab into care homes.
Those residents will now be prioritised because they are the most at risk of dying if they catch Covid-19.
The numbers raise questions about whether it was necessary to plaster strict Tier Three lockdown rules over most of the North of England the Midlands.
Every local authority in the North of England saw their Covid-19 infection rate fall in the week that ended November 29, the PHE data shows.
With the exception of Liverpool, Cheshire, Cumbria and parts of Yorkshire, all of the North is banned from visiting restaurants and pubs.
As many as 14 out of 20 authorities that saw the biggest nosedives in infections were in the North – including nine in Tier Three. Cases in Redcar and Cleveland, which was slapped in the toughest measure when England’s national lockdown ended on December 2, nosedived by 53 per cent to 141.5 cases per 100,000 people.
It was followed by Gateshead, in Newcastle, where infections plummeted by 46 per cent to 149.5 per 100,0000, and Leicestershire, where they tumbled by 45 per cent to 148.1 per 100,000.
Experts cautioned that although the receding Covid-19 infections were a ‘great sign’, it was unlikely that ministers would row back on draconian curbs until Christmas had passed over fears letting the virus spread would now cause a spike in cases between December 23 to 27 when restrictions are eased.
MPs have demanded a relaxation of the ‘authoritarian’ tiered system, and warned we are ‘so far down the rabbit hole that we have forgotten we even entered it’.
The tumbling cases are another ray of hope for the country and come after Britain this week became the first country in the world to approve a Covid vaccine. The UK’s biggest-ever vaccination drive, which will involve the NHS and the Army, will begin on Tuesday.
Of the sharpest declines in infections in Tier Three areas, North East Lincolnshire had the fourth highest drop with data showing its infections fell by 44.6 per cent to 206.8 per 100,000 people in the week ending November 29.
Middlesbrough followed, with infections spiralling downwards by 44.5 per cent to 172.3 per 100,000, and Hull saw infections drop by 44.4 per cent to 255.6 per 100,000.
Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist from the University of East Anglia who has written a scientific study on the impact of the tiers, told MailOnline it was ‘quite likely’ many councils in the North would be able to drop down into Tier Two soon.
But he warned it was ‘difficult to make those decisions now when we’ve been in a national lockdown for four weeks and we’ve got Christmas coming up’.
‘I can certainly see an argument that the North West has come down very effectively over the course of this last few weeks and it is nowhere near as big a problem as it was,’ he said.
‘And hopefully – if it wasn’t for Christmas – I think people would be quite comfortable about dropping it down.’