Coronavirus infections continue to fall across the UK
By Jane Kirby and Ian Jones, PA
The number of people with coronavirus in homes across the UK is dropping, according to new figures, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson prepares his road map for easing restrictions.
Around one in 115 people in private households in England had Covid-19 between February 6 and 12, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said, down from around one in 80 people from January 31 to February 6.
This is the lowest figure since November 29 to December 5, when the estimate also stood at one in 115 people.
Meanwhile, in Wales, around one in 125 people are estimated to have had Covid-19 between February 6 and 12, down from one in 85 previously.
In Northern Ireland, the figure is around one in 105 people, down from one in 75, while in Scotland it is around one in 180 people, down from one in 150.
The data, which does not cover care homes and hospitals, is based on swab tests from thousands of people regardless of whether or not they have symptoms.
It comes as top scientific advisers said vaccines are having an impact on the pandemic.
Professor Adam Finn, from the University of Bristol and a member of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), said “everything’s moving in the right direction” when it comes to how jabs are working.
His comments were echoed by Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London and a key figure in ensuring the UK went into lockdown last March, who said that while it was still “early days”, a figure of two-thirds efficacy from a single dose of a vaccine was “not too far off”.
Public Health England (PHE) is due to publish data shortly which shows the effectiveness of the current vaccination programme.
Prof Finn told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We’ve now got to the point with the study we’re doing in Bristol where we can say with certainty that there is definitely an effect.
“It’s just hard to put an exact number on it at this point because… the numbers of cases coming through are still building up, the number of people who’ve been vaccinated are still going up, but it’s becoming clearer for the Pfizer vaccine, which we’ve been using for a month longer, since early December, and it’ll take slightly longer for us to get a firm handle on just how well the AstraZeneca vaccine is preventing hospitalisations too, but they’re definitely doing the job.”
Mr Johnson is expected to examine the latest data on vaccine effectiveness this weekend alongside the most up-to-date figures on cases, deaths and people admitted to hospital.
On Monday, he will set out a road map for easing the lockdown in England, with the aim of first reopening schools on March 8.
Speaking on Wednesday Mr Johnson said it was “absolutely right” to take a “data not dates” approach to easing restrictions as he stressed the need to proceed “cautiously”.
Figures show a continued decline since Christmas in the number of new cases of coronavirus, although rates vary according to region.
Overall, 74,961 new cases were recorded in England in the seven days to February 14, the equivalent of 133.2 per 100,000 people.
This is down sharply from a peak of 680.8 cases per 100,000 people on January 4.
It is also the lowest seven-day rate since October 4.
Meanwhile, the number of patients in hospital in England with Covid-19 has also fallen sharply in recent weeks.
A total of 15,633 patients were in hospital as of 8am on February 18, down 54% from a record 34,336 patients exactly one month earlier on January 18.
But while this is a sizeable drop, numbers at both a national and regional level are still higher than when England came out of its second lockdown on December 2.
All regions also continue to report patient numbers well above those seen in last May, when Boris Johnson announced the initial easing of the first lockdown.
Meanwhile the number of daily hospital admissions of patients with Covid-19 stood at 1,311 on February 16, down 68% from a peak of 4,134 on January 12, but still above the 1,262 on the day England came out of its second lockdown on December 2.
Earlier, Prof Ferguson said the data on vaccine effectiveness and how quickly infection, deaths and hospital cases were declining across the country was looking promising.
But he added: “The trade-off we have is between how quickly can we relax, and how quickly we can immunise and protect the population.
“And there are still risks at the moment in relaxing too quickly when we don’t have enough immunity in the population bearing in mind that no vaccine is a panacea, no vaccine will offer perfect protection.”
Prof Ferguson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that he thought the current lockdown should be lifted in stages, adding that the “downside of taking bigger risks is you risk having to lock down again which is even more disruptive economically and socially”.
He added: “I am encouraged by the cautious approach being taken, an incremental approach which I think will be adopted, namely relax one thing and see what the impact is, relax again.
“And it still may well be that by the end of May, we’re in a very different country than we are today.”
In other developments:
– Foreign Office minister James Cleverly said it would be wrong for him to speculate on whether summer holidays will go ahead. He said ministers were “making a judgment based on the science”.
– Data from the Zoe app study from King’s College London suggests a 5% drop in symptomatic cases of Covid in the UK on average in the most recent week. It puts the current reproduction number (the R) of the UK at 0.9.
– Mayor of London Sadiq Khan has received his first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, with his asthma putting him in a priority group. He later told the PA news agency there should be no return to the tier system for managing coronavirus.
Elsewhere, Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford has said some aspects of non-essential retail, as well as personal services such as hairdressing, could begin to reopen there from March 15, with stay-at-home restrictions eased in three weeks.
All primary school children in Wales will return to face-to-face teaching from mid-March provided the coronavirus situation in the country “continues to improve”, he added.
Meanwhile, the number of people allowed to exercise together in Wales will also increase from two to four.