A weekly Office for National Statistics 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.
The data 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.
Separate 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.
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.’
Government advisers on SAGE are expected to publish their updated estimate of the R rate this afternoon, which is set to bolster evidence that Britain’s outbreak shrank drastically during November. Last week the panel said the R – which is backdated by around a fortnight – was between 0.9 and 1.0, and it is expected to decline further.
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.
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.’