England’s coronavirus infection rate is now back to where it was in mid-September, according to Public Health England and Test and Trace data.
The number of positive tests recorded last week was lower than at any point since the start of the second wave and cases came down in all age groups and regions over recent weeks.
And the picture is positive over almost the entire country, with case counts coming down in 134 out of 149 local authorities – although there were 15 areas that recorded growing outbreaks in the week up to February 21.
NHS Test and Trace’s data showed just 84,310 people tested positive nationwide in the week to last Wednesday, a drop of almost half from 149,000 two weeks earlier.
More recent Public Health England figures show that nine out of 10 areas had shrinking outbreaks up to Sunday, February 21, but some saw significant growth, with cases almost doubling in Rutland.
September 20 was the last time that cases were lower in every region and every age group than they are now.
However, the total number of people carrying the virus is thought to be considerably higher now than it was then – 481,000 at the last estimate, compared to 104,000 in mid-September – and there are far more people currently in hospital with Covid-19, at 14,100 on February 22 compared to 1,174 on September 20.
Professor Paul Elliott, an Imperial College London epidemiologist carrying out the REACT mass swab-testing study for the government, explained last week: ‘The actual prevalence is still very high. We’re only back where we were in September and, clearly, we want to be back where we were in August.’
Anti-lockdown Tory MPs, spurred on by reams of positive data in recent days and weeks, are keen to press Boris Johnson to move faster with his plans to remove social distancing rules, but the Prime Minister today said there was ‘no wiggle room’. Mr Johnson said: ‘We’re sticking to our plan.’
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
This is down 44 per cent in a fortnight and is the lowest number since the week to September 30.
It comes amid mounting calls from anti-lockdown Tory MPs to bring forward No10’s lockdown-easing date of June 21 and give millions of people their freedom before the summer solstice.
Boris Johnson defended his roadmap back to normality yesterday, shrugging off demands from his own benches to ‘show urgency’ after Downing Street flatly ruled out accelerating the ultra-cautious timetable.
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.
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.
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.
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.’