Education Secretary Gavin Williamson this morning insisted England’s national lockdown is ‘having an impact’ after a mass-testing survey found that infection numbers appeared to plateau and even rise at the start of January.
The schools minister rebuked suggestions that restrictions are either too lax or not being followed strictly enough and said that they were helping the NHS to cope. He appeared to suggest there were other, more reliable data that suggest lockdown is working.
And Mr Williamson, who has come under fire for flip-flopping on Government policies on school openings and safety, insisted primary and secondary schools are still ‘a safe environment’ despite evidence showing unusually high infection rates among staff as well as pupils in some parts of the country.
Imperial College London’s REACT-1 study, published last night, swab-tested 142,000 people across England for coronavirus between January 6 and 15 – the first 10 days of the lockdown – and found that 1.6 per cent of them were positive. This is equal to around 900,000 people across the country.
The findings have caused confusion because they come as an outlier when other data appear to be suggesting the outbreak is coming under control. One of the researchers running the study said it ‘doesn’t support the conclusion that lockdown is working’.
But they acknowledge that the study only took in the first 10 days of a lockdown which began at a time when more people than ever are thought to have been infected with coronavirus. Mr Williamson said other, more data were showing a different picture and a scientist not involved with the study said there was ‘quite a strong possibility that the REACT-1 estimates are not very accurate’.
England’s third national lockdown started on January 5 and is expected to last at least until the end of February while the NHS scrambles to vaccinate 13.9million of the nation’s most vulnerable people against Covid-19.
The Imperial study also estimated that the national R rate is 1.04, meaning the epidemic is still increasing in size and the number of people in hospitals would continue to rise until transmission could be brought under control.
One of the scientists running the study, Professor Steven Riley, said yesterday: ‘There’s no evidence that infection prevalence is decreasing at present, even 10 days into lockdown. The main health implication of this is that we can’t expect levels of daily deaths to drop and we can’t expect the number of Covid inpatients to drop.’
But Mr Williamson this morning hit back against the suggestion lockdown wasn’t working.
He told Sky News: ‘The evidence that we’ve been seeing is that, actually, it has been having an impact in terms of relieving some of that pressure on the NHS so the NHS is able to cope. But, of course, the Government always looks at all the evidence that’s available.’
He referenced other studies looking at the effects of Covid-19 across the country which suggest more optimistic trends – NHS Test & Trace numbers suggest infection numbers are coming down and Cambridge University estimates show that the R rate of the virus is likely below one.
Mr Williamson, who has come under fire over flip-flopping Government policies on school openings and safety, insisted primary and secondary schools are still ‘a safe environment
The Imperial College London study found that 1.58 per cent of people in England were infected with coronavirus in that 10-day spell — the equivalent of almost 900,000 people. The graph shows the general trend across each time period the study has been carried out for, with the red line pointing upwards in the most recent week
It found that mobility data suggested people were moving around more since the start of January, meaning even tougher restrictions may be necessary
The Imperial study, which is commissioned by the Government, suggested the epidemic is not slowing down as hoped and that hospital admissions will keep increasing for several weeks.
The study found that 1.58 per cent of people – around one in 65 – were infected with the virus. This has surged since the start of December but is slightly down from an estimated peak of one in 50 just after Christmas.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the findings show ‘why we must not let down our guard over the weeks to come’. He added: ‘Infections across England are at very high levels and this will keep having a knock-on effect on the already significant pressures faced by our NHS and hospitals.
‘It is absolutely paramount that everyone plays their part to bring down infections.’
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson today echoed a caveat given by the Imperial researchers, that this is just one of many streams of data that the Government takes into account, so doesn’t give a perfect picture.
He said on Sky News: ‘The Government always looks very closely at all the evidence and all the advice that comes forward; that’s the right approach to be taking. That’s why we had SAGE to look at a whole set of different research, different advice.
‘I think everyone right across the country, not just in Government, wants to see Britain exiting from lockdown at the earliest possible stage, but we’ve had to take these measures in order to alleviate pressure on the NHS.
‘The evidence that we’ve been seeing is that actually it has been having an impact in terms of relieving some of that pressure on the NHS so the NHS is able to cope but, of course, the Government always looks at all the evidence that’s available.’
Asked whether schools were safe to remain open – most are still bringing in some children for in-person teaching – the Education Secretary said: ‘Schools are a safe environment to be in’.
The REACT-1 study has spared some confusion because an array of other data and scientific estimates showed exactly the opposite.
Cambridge University researchers had estimated that the R rate – the the average number of people each infected person passes the disease onto – may have dipped to 0.6 in London and the South East.
Public Health England had also revealed that weekly Covid cases had fallen in every age group except the over-80s, despite the spread of the highly infectious variant first spotted in Kent which officials feared couldn’t be contained. And Department of Health figures had showed that dozens of boroughs had experienced a drop in infection rates.
It comes after Britain recorded its deadliest day of the Covid pandemic for second day in a row with 1,820 more fatalities, taking the overall number of victims one step closer to the grim 100,000 milestone.
When broken down by date of death, data shows 1,110 people succumbed to the virus on January 12, the highest number of fatalities to occur on a single day since the start of the pandemic. The daily toll is the number of deaths registered in the last 24 hours, which includes deaths over the past few days.
Despite the country’s ever-growing death toll, Department of Health statistics also showed the UK’s second wave is continuing to fade away as a result of the lockdown. Officials recorded another 38,905 coronavirus cases, down 18 per cent on last Wednesday’s figure of 47,525.
Random swabbing of 142,000 people between January 6 to 15 found ‘no evidence’ of a decline in infection levels — despite an array of promising data showing exactly the opposite. The graph shows the test positivity rate for every day of the study
The Imperial College London team also revealed how test positivity rates varied across each region of England over the study period, with rates falling in the East and South West and plateauing in London
The Imperial College London experts showed that cases were still highest in London between January 5 and 15, followed by the West Midlands, South East and East of England
The researchers also offered a breakdown of how test positivity rates varied by age group, showing infections were highest among 18-24 year olds
Experts behind the REACT-1 study also revealed how test positivity rates varied between age groups for each region, over the last three rounds of testing
And the team also offered a heat map showing where outbreaks have grown or shrunk between the last two recent rounds of testing
Boris warns ‘there will be more’ Covid deaths after UK records daily high of 1,820 victims
Boris Johnson warned ‘there will be more’ Covid deaths to come after Britain recorded its deadliest day of the pandemic for second day in a row with 1,820 more victims.
With the UK’s overall death toll creeping ever closer to the grim 100,000 milestone, the Prime Minister called the daily figure ‘appalling’.
Department of Health data shows nearly 20,000 fatalities have been recorded in 2021 already, with yesterday’s figure being a 16 per cent rise on the 1,243 recorded last week. Health bosses declared 1,610 deaths yesterday.
Despite the country’s ever-growing death toll, statistics also showed the UK’s second wave is continuing to fade away as a result of lockdown. Officials recorded another 38,905 coronavirus cases on Wednesday, down 18 per cent on last Wednesday’s figure of 47,525.
Fatalities lag by a few weeks behind infections due to the time it takes between catching and falling seriously ill with Covid, which means the effects of the January 4 shutdown might not be felt in the death figures until next week. Experts say Britain will suffer more ‘record-breaking’ days in terms of deaths before they eventually fall.
When the death figures are broken down by date, it reveals 1,110 people succumbed to the virus on January 12, the highest number of fatalities to occur on a single day since the start of the pandemic. The Government’s daily toll is the number of deaths registered in the last 24 hours, which includes deaths over the past few days.
Deaths lag behind infections by several weeks because of how long it takes between catching and falling seriously ill with Covid, so the effects of the January 5 lockdown may not be felt in the death figures until next week. Experts say Britain will suffer more record-breaking days in terms of deaths before they eventually fall.
Other studies tracking the size of the outbreak – including the King’s College London symptom-tracker – claim cases fell almost immediately because of lockdown. And even Department of Health data suggests that cases were falling in London and other areas plunged into Tier 4 before Christmas.
However, the study by Imperial College London said there is ‘no evidence’ that cases had fallen since a national lockdown was imposed on January 6.
It found that mobility data suggested people were moving around more since the start of January, meaning even tougher restrictions may be necessary.
However, Professor Riley said that the surveillance testing programme was ‘ahead’ of daily testing data, which suggests the epidemic is shrinking.
He added that it will take ‘a number of weeks or possibly months’ before vaccinations lead to a fall in infections.
Co-author Professor Paul Elliot said: ‘We are seeing the R rate is pretty flat at a time of high prevalence. We would be hoping for a downturn during the lockdown, we definitely saw that in lockdown one [in March] but we are not seeing that in lockdown three.’
The study authors said the new, highly infectious variant means that the new lockdown does not appear to be as effective as the first one.
Asked if he expects there to be more patients in hospital in two weeks time, Professor Elliot said: ‘At the current prevalence rates, unless they come down, I think the answer has to be yes.’ There is a lag of two to three weeks between new infections, hospital admissions and deaths.
It came as Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific advisor, compared the current situation in hospitals to a ‘war zone’.
He said: ‘This [situation in the NHS] is very, very bad at the moment, with enormous pressure, and in some cases it looks like a war zone in terms of the things that people are having to deal with.’
Sir Patrick added: ‘The numbers are nowhere near where they need to be at the moment, they need to come down quite a lot further – we need to make sure we stick with it.
‘You go for a walk in the park or something, life looks normal; you go for a walk in a hospital, if you work in a hospital, you will see life not looking normal at all. This is a really difficult, dangerous situation we’re in, and we need to get the numbers down.’
The NHS is currently under extreme pressure after the number of Covid inpatients doubled in a month, forcing some hospitals to transfer patients elsewhere.
Yesterday a coastguard helicopter has been used to transfer a patient from the Isle of Wight to Southampton to relieve pressure on the local hospital’s intensive care unit.
Last week the Cambridge team said R in London and the South East was as low as around 0.6. In a report the university’s Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit estimated it had fallen to 0.61 in London and 0.64 in the South East
Last week’s PHE surveillance update had showed an improvement in the outbreak in the week up to January 10
Public Health England had also revealed that weekly Covid cases had fallen in every age group except the over-80s, despite the spread of the highly infectious variant first spotted in Kent which officials feared couldn’t be contained
Department of Health data had even suggested that Tier 4 was working in London and other areas plunged into the toughest bracket before Christmas
Is Britain’s great Covid vaccine rollout back on track?
Hopes that Britain’s great Covid vaccine rollout is still on track were raised yesterday as official data revealed the UK dished out 346,000 jabs yesterday following fears the NHS drive may have stalled.
Boris Johnson insisted the UK is still on schedule to inoculate 14million vulnerable people by mid-February. But the Prime Minister — who was grilled by MPs about the operation — warned ‘constraints on supply’ were making the situation harder.
Fears that the NHS scheme had stagnated were sparked yesterday after data revealed the number of doses dished out had fallen for three days in a row.
But fresh statistics show 343,163 people got their first Covid vaccines yesterday, meaning 4.5million Britons have now had their first dose. One government insider told MailOnline they hoped it meant that the rollout was ‘back on track’.
In order to meet the lockdown-easing target, the Government must average more than 350,000 doses a day from now until February 15, with the previous bullish tone from officials getting toned down in recent days.
Elsewhere, the children’s emergency department at the Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth, one of the main hospitals in the south of England, has been relocated. The hospital said the move was necessary to provide increased handover space for adult Covid-19 patients.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman told reporters: ‘We accept and fully acknowledge the pressure that the NHS is under at the moment.
‘You’ve seen ministers make that clear in press conferences previously. That’s why we continue to ask the public to follow the guidance and to play their part to protect the NHS and save lives.’
The pressure comes amid hopes that Britain’s great Covid vaccine rollout is still on track, despite a three-day blip in performance.
Official data last night revealed the UK dished out almost 350,000 doses yesterday. One Government insider told MailOnline they hoped it meant the rollout was ‘back on track’.
In order to meet the lockdown-easing target, the Government must average more than 350,000 doses a day from now until February 15, with the previous bullish tone from officials abruptly getting more anxious.
Boris Johnson insisted the UK will hit his target of inoculating 14million vulnerable people by mid-February. But the Prime Minister – who was grilled by MPs about the operation – warned ‘constraints on supply’ were making the situation harder.
The promising data came amid mounting confusion about the source of the three-day blip in performance, with officials saying there were a ‘lot of moving parts’ that contributed to the slowdown.
Pfizer’s supplies have been dented by a factory upgrade which will continue into next month. Government sources have flatly dismissed claims there are 21million doses of vaccines already in the country, although they refused to give details of stocks saying it would be a security risk.
Sources say other factors include the ‘intermittent’ deliveries of supplies and difficulties contacting the remaining over-80s and covering care homes.
MPs have also voiced frustration at the way supplies have been divvied out. In London – which has dished out the fewest jabs – the allocation is believed to have been based on take-up of last season’s flu vaccine, which was relatively low.