June 21 hangs ‘in the balance’, warns Professor Neil Ferguson

Boris Johnson and Matt Hancock today poured fresh doubts on whether England’s June 21 ‘freedom day’ can go ahead because the Indian Covid variant now makes up more than half of cases and infections are rising. 

The Prime Minister admitted No10 may have to wait for more data before pressing ahead with the easing of the final set of lockdown restrictions, while the Health Secretary told MPs it was still ‘too early’ to say if the roadmap needed to be slowed down in the face of the mutant strain.

Health chiefs today recorded 3,542 positive coronavirus tests — the highest figure since April 12 and up by 23.2 per cent on last Thursday’s count. It is the second day running cases have risen by a fifth compared to the week before.

Hospital admissions and deaths have also crept up but remain low. Another 10 fatalities were posted today, with the rolling seven-day average still in single figures but up slightly (from seven to eight). And 112 more Covid patients needed NHS care on Sunday, the most recent day data is available for. The rolling average rose by around a fifth (from 98 to 118) in the latest week. 

Speaking at a Downing Street press conference today Dr Jenny Harries, the chief of the UK Health Security Agency, said there was a ‘suggestion of an upward rise in cases’ but cautioned that surge testing in areas with local outbreaks could be picking up a lot of cases that might usually go unnoticed.  

Top scientists have called for Downing Street to delay next month’s lockdown-easing because of the spread of B.1.617.2, which has been found in half of England’s 300-plus local authorities. 

Dr Harries and Mr Hancock both said that the Indian variant was taking the place of the Kent strain, which had been dominant since Christmas, and the Health Secretary said it is ‘still spreading and the latest estimates are that more than half and potentially as many as three quarters of all new cases are now of this variant’. He added ‘we always expected cases to rise’ as England emerged from lockdown and said the link to deaths was breaking.

SAGE member Professor John Edmunds said he would advise Boris Johnson not to take the next step as planned because ‘at the moment it looks a little bit risky’. 

Meanwhile, fellow adviser ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson warned the plans to ease restrictions hang ‘in the balance’. He said the now-dominant strain would trigger a ‘small third wave’ but that the next two or three weeks would be ‘critical’ in deciding whether it was safe to move to step four on the roadmap.

But one of the Government’s top scientists today hailed ‘encouraging’ data that showed hospitalisations remain low despite cases having ticked up in every region except the East Midlands. However, Dr Yvonne Doyle, Public Health England’s medical director, said they have risen slightly and that they were ‘concerned’ about the Indian variant.

Discussing the threat of the mutant strain during a visit to a hospital in Colchester this morning, Mr Johnson said: ‘As I have said many times I don’t see anything currently in the data to suggest that we have to deviate from the road map. But we may need to wait.

‘Don’t forget the important point about the intervals between the steps of the road map, we put that five weeks between those steps to give us time to see what effect the unlockings are having.’ 

But the Health Secretary insisted Britain’s mammoth inoculation drive has changed the game, saying: ‘Thanks to the power of vaccination, in which I have always believed, the link from cases to hospitalisations and to deaths is being severed.’

He added at Downing Street that, out of 49 people in hospital with Covid in Bolton, only five had been vaccinated. 

Despite data suggesting Britain’s Covid infections may be spiralling quickly, other surveillance studies paint a different picture about the trajectory of the outbreak. King’s College London academics today estimated that symptomatic cases have fallen by around 10 per cent in a week. 

Other promising MailOnline analysis today showed Covid cases are only clearly rising in three of England’s Indian variant hotspots. Blackburn with Darwen, Kirklees and Bedford are the only areas of the eight worst-affected to have seen an obvious rise in infections.

Burnley has seen a fall in the average number of positive tests being spotted each day, based on the most recent data on the Department of Health’s coronavirus dashboard. Outbreaks appear flat in the other four areas: Bolton, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside. 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said today that between half and three quarters of all Covid cases in the UK are now being caused by the Indian variant

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And Public Health England analysis released today showed cases have ticked up in every region except the East Midlands. Infections rate jumped in 79 of England’s upper-tier authorities in the week ending May 23 — doubling in four parts of the country: Darlington, Wokingham, Oldham and Blackburn with Darwen

Asked by former health secretary Jeremy Hunt what measures could be taken to ensure June 21 could go ahead, Mr Hancock said: ‘It is true the Indian variant is spreading across the country, and estimates vary as to what proportion of the new cases each day are the variant first identified in India, which is more transmissible.

Cases are only clearly rising in THREE of England’s eight Indian variant hotspots, data shows 

Covid cases are only clearly rising in three of England’s Indian variant hotspots, official statistics show amid warnings that people aged under 21 may be more likely to catch the mutant strain.

Blackburn with Darwen, Kirklees and Bedford are the only areas of the eight identified by ministers as being to have seen an obvious rise in infections. 

Burnley has seen a fall in the average number of positive tests being spotted each day, based on the most recent data on the Department of Health’s coronavirus dashboard. Outbreaks appear flat in the other four areas: Bolton, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside.

And the number of beds occupied by Covid patients has remained in single figures for all but one of the areas — Bolton, which saw a fall from 44 to 41 beds on Tuesday. Just one person was in hospital with Covid in the hospital trust covering North Tyneside at the most recent date.

But hospitalisation data is much harder to untangle because some NHS trusts care for larger areas, with multiple hospitals under their jurisdiction. For example, East Lancashire Trust includes hospitals in Burnley and Blackburn, providing one piece of data for both hotspots. 

Experts say admissions in Bolton are currently lower than they would have predicted based on case numbers a fortnight ago, even though rates have crept up over the past month.

Professor Christina Pagel, a member of Independent SAGE, hailed the most recent case numbers as ‘good news’, despite previously saying ministers may need to delay the last stage of lockdown easing on May 17 due to the rapid spread of the Indian variant.

She tweeted: ‘So some good news: cases in some of the new variant hotspots are now coming down — especially in Bolton.’ 

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‘My assessment is that it is too early now to say, yet, whether we can take the full step four on June 21. Like him [Hunt], I desperately want us to, but we will only do that if it’s safe.

‘We will make a formal assessment ahead of June 14 as to what step we can take on the 21st, and in that we will be both driven by the data, we will be advised on and guided by the science, and we will be fully transparent both with this House and with the public in those decisions.’

Mr Hancock also told MPs that 10 per cent of patients in hospital have had both doses of the vaccine.

He said: ‘The fact that 90 per cent are people who have not yet had their double vaccination gives us a high degree of confidence that the vaccine is highly effective but it also shows that it isn’t 100 per cent effective.’

Scientists today hailed his claims, saying it was ‘brilliant’.

One mathematician said the figures implied the jabs were at least 95 per cent effective at preventing serious illness but claimed it may be ‘even higher’. 

No10 yesterday refused to rule out imposing local lockdowns to tackle the spread of the variant.

Professor Ferguson told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that scientists were still ‘working to assess how much more transmissible it is’.

But he said: ‘It has gone from being a small minority to a majority variant and that’s clearly of concern.

‘We know it partially evades the immunity generated by vaccines. Thankfully if people have had two doses there’s still a large amount of immunity remaining, but it’s not quite as much as before.

‘Step four is rather in the balance, the data collected in the next two or three weeks will be critical.’ He said by then ministers will be able ‘to come to a firm assessment of whether we can go forward’. 

Professor Ferguson, whose grim modelling warned hundreds of thousands of Brits could die without the first lockdown last March, said it was promising that infection levels were still low despite the new variant.

The latest ONS survey suggested only one in a thousand people in England are Covid-positive.

He added: ‘The key issue on whether we can go forward is will the surge caused by the Indian variant – and we do think there will be a surge – be more than has been already planned in to the relaxation measures.

‘It was always expected that relaxation would lead to a surge in infections and to some extent a small third wave of transmission, that’s inevitable if you allow contact rates in the population to go up, even despite immunity. It’s just we can’t cope with that being too large.’

And he seemingly backed No10’s maverick former chief aide’s devastating Covid takedown, saying it is ‘unarguable’ lives could have been saved in the first wave. 

Academics at King's College London and health-tech firm ZOE estimate that 2,550 Britons — including 1,919 people in England — were becoming ill every day in the week up to May 23. For comparison, figures a week before stood at 2,750 and 2,132, respectively

Academics at King's College London and health-tech firm ZOE estimate that 2,550 Britons — including 1,919 people in England — were becoming ill every day in the week up to May 23. For comparison, figures a week before stood at 2,750 and 2,132, respectively

Academics at King’s College London and health-tech firm ZOE estimate that 2,550 Britons — including 1,919 people in England — were becoming ill every day in the week up to May 23. For comparison, figures a week before stood at 2,750 and 2,132, respectively

Department of Health statistics released today showed how the number of tests carried out dropped slightly in the week ending May 19

Department of Health statistics released today showed how the number of tests carried out dropped slightly in the week ending May 19

Department of Health statistics released today showed how the number of tests carried out dropped slightly in the week ending May 19

Separate Test and Trace statistics today showed the number of positive swabs across the country fell slightly last week, with 14,051 recorded — down from 14,082 in the previous seven-day spell. However, this was fuelled by a drop in the number of NHS workers and seriously ill patients testing positive. There was a small rise in cases among the general public (from 12,381 to 12,561), despite 40,000 fewer tests being carried out across England

Separate Test and Trace statistics today showed the number of positive swabs across the country fell slightly last week, with 14,051 recorded — down from 14,082 in the previous seven-day spell. However, this was fuelled by a drop in the number of NHS workers and seriously ill patients testing positive. There was a small rise in cases among the general public (from 12,381 to 12,561), despite 40,000 fewer tests being carried out across England

Separate Test and Trace statistics today showed the number of positive swabs across the country fell slightly last week, with 14,051 recorded — down from 14,082 in the previous seven-day spell. However, this was fuelled by a drop in the number of NHS workers and seriously ill patients testing positive. There was a small rise in cases among the general public (from 12,381 to 12,561), despite 40,000 fewer tests being carried out across England

Professor Lockdown' Neil Ferguson warned the plans to ease restrictions hang 'in the balance'

Professor Lockdown' Neil Ferguson warned the plans to ease restrictions hang 'in the balance'

Professor John Edmunds, an epidemiologist and member of SAGE, said he would advise Boris Johnson against fully unlocking next month because 'at the moment it looks a little bit risky'

Professor John Edmunds, an epidemiologist and member of SAGE, said he would advise Boris Johnson against fully unlocking next month because 'at the moment it looks a little bit risky'

Professor Neil Ferguson (left) today warned the Indian variant would bring a ‘small third wave’ but the next two or three weeks would be ‘critical’ in deciding whether it was safe to move to step four on the government’s roadmap. Professor John Edmunds (right), an epidemiologist and member of SAGE, said he would advise Boris Johnson against fully unlocking next month because ‘at the moment it looks a little bit risky’

What is the truth about Covid cases in Britain and England? Symptom-tracking app says infections may be DOWN… but PHE warns tests are up

Britain’s coronavirus outbreak may not be spiralling out of control, despite fears the rapid spread of the Indian variant could threaten plans to ease lockdown restrictions next month.

The number of people falling ill with symptoms of coronavirus has fallen by up to 10 per cent over the last week, according to a symptom-tracking app.

Academics at King’s College London and health-tech firm ZOE estimate that 2,550 Britons — and 1,919 people in England — were becoming ill every day on May 23. For comparison, figures a week before stood at 2,750 and 2,132, respectively.

Professor Tim Spector, the epidemiologist behind the app, said national figures ‘remain unaffected’, despite numerous measures saying that the outbreak is starting to get bigger with the quick growth of the B.1.617.2 strain.

He claimed cases appeared to be spiking in hotspots including Bolton, Kirklees and Leicester but added: ‘Reassuringly, we aren’t seeing numbers rise in other surrounding areas.’

But the picture on the Covid outbreak in England, as well as Britain, remains a mixed bag.

Daily positive tests in the UK yesterday breached the 3,000 mark for the first time since April, and other surveillance studies have warned that cases are starting to rise across the nation.

Separate Test and Trace figures today showed the number of positive swabs across England fell slightly last week, with 14,051 recorded in the seven days to May 19 — down from 14,082 in the previous spell.

However, this was fuelled by a drop in the number of NHS workers and seriously ill patients testing positive.

There was a small rise in cases among the general public (from 12,381 to 12,561), even though 40,000 fewer tests being carried out across England.

Swab positivity rates rose in around a third of the 300-plus authorities dotted across the country but fell in Bolton — Britain’s worst-hit borough, where the Indian variant is known to be rife.

And Public Health England analysis released today showed cases have ticked up in every region except the East Midlands.

Infections rate jumped in 79 of England’s upper-tier authorities in the week ending May 23 — doubling in four parts of the country: Darlington, Wokingham, Oldham and Blackburn with Darwen.

Outbreaks remained flat in 10 areas.

But the PHE data is based on positive tests and looks at data recorded each week, meaning it doesn’t take into account trends that can change day-by-day. Figures can also go up if more tests are carried out.

For comparison, the King’s College London symptom-tracking app looks at people who become ill. Around a third of infected patients never develop any of the tell-tale warning signs.

Separate data analysed by MailOnline today, from the Department of Health, show that cases may be flat in four of eight Indian variant hotspots: Bolton, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside.

Blackburn with Darwen, Kirklees and Bedford are the only areas of the eight where the disease is rife to have seen an obvious rise in infections.

Burnley has seen a fall in the average number of positive tests being spotted each day, based on the most recent data on the Department of Health’s coronavirus dashboard.

But those figures are based on daily cases, which can be skewed easily and are not as reliable. However, scientists still trust them. One Independent SAGE member used them to hail the fact that Bolton’s curve appears to have started to flatten.

The gold-standard coronavirus surveillance project, carried out by the Office for National Statistics and relied upon by ministers, last week warned of a rise in cases. It gets updated tomorrow.

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Meanwhile, Professor Edmunds, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, told ITV last night: ‘You know, the Indian variant is taking off in a number of places — not everywhere, but a number of places.

‘Luckily we’ve still got low levels, but it is concerning. And we are still not back to normal. We measure people’s contact patterns and we’re still at less than half of our normal contact patterns at the moment. So I think that is helping to keep the lid on it, to some extent.’

NHS bosses have said the next seven days will be ‘crucial’ in assessing whether Covid jabs work.

Though increasing cases are usually followed by rises in hospitalisations and deaths, officials say jabs have broken that once impenetrable link. But Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said trusts ‘will be monitoring the data closely’ to ensure the Indian variant hasn’t scuppered the roll-out. 

Hospital admissions (115) jumped by around 11 per cent compared with the previous seven days, according to official statistics.  

Mr Hopson said hospitals in Indian variant hotspots in England were seeing cases rise steadily. 

But they were not increasing ‘at an alarming rate’, and he said: ‘The next seven days will be crucial, and trusts will be monitoring the data closely.’

He added that hospital admissions appeared to be of patients who had not been vaccinated, explaining: ‘This hammers home just how important it is to have a vaccination’.  

Britain’s mammoth vaccine drive has continued at full steam ahead amid the threat of the Indian variant.

Another 387,987 top-up jabs were dished out across the country on Tuesday — taking the UK’s number of fully vaccinated adults to more than 23.6 million. 

Another 186,147 first doses were also administered, with 38.4 million adults — or 72.9 per cent — having had at least one jab. 

England’s roll-out was yesterday expanded to 30 and 31-year-olds. Northern Ireland today began offering jabs to all over-18s. Wales and Scotland have both already started to invite the youngest cohort.

Observing the rise in cases, Professor Ferguson said the increase had been anticipated.

Though he suggested restrictions could be extended beyond June 21, he also reassured that the country’s jabs roll-out meant the UK is in a ‘much better place’ than during the second wave in December.

The professor also suggested the country could cope if the Indian variant was proven to only be 20 to 30 per cent more transmissible — which SAGE scientists have argued is feasible.  

Government advisers sounded the alarm about the Indian variant last month before it became the UK’s dominant strain, saying it may be up to 50 per cent more infectious than the Kent variant.

But scientists have since offered more optimism, believing the true figure to be around half of the initial estimate. Rigorous analysis has also shown vaccines still work against the strain. 

Despite fears the rapid spread of the Indian variant could threaten plans to ease lockdown restrictions next month, Britain’s coronavirus outbreak may not be spiralling out of control.

The number of people falling ill with symptoms of coronavirus has fallen by up to 10 per cent over the last week, according to a symptom-tracking app.

Academics at King’s College London and health-tech firm ZOE estimate that 2,550 Britons — and 1,919 people in England — were becoming ill every day on May 23. For comparison, figures a week before stood at 2,750 and 2,132, respectively.

Professor Tim Spector, the epidemiologist behind the app, said national figures ‘remain unaffected’, despite numerous measures saying that the outbreak is starting to get bigger with the quick growth of the B.1.617.2 strain.

He claimed cases appeared to be spiking in hotspots including Bolton, Kirklees and Leicester but added: ‘Reassuringly, we aren’t seeing numbers rise in other surrounding areas.’

But the picture on the Covid outbreak in England, as well as Britain, remains a mixed bag.

Daily positive tests in the UK yesterday breached the 3,000 mark for the first time since April, and other surveillance studies have warned that cases are starting to rise across the nation.

Separate Test and Trace figures today showed the number of positive swabs across England fell slightly last week, with 14,051 recorded in the seven days to May 19 — down from 14,082 in the previous spell. 

Covid hospitalisations may not be spiralling out of control in Bolton, according to official NHS figures that show occupancy at the town's major NHS trust fell yesterday despite the rapid spread of the Indian variant

Covid hospitalisations may not be spiralling out of control in Bolton, according to official NHS figures that show occupancy at the town's major NHS trust fell yesterday despite the rapid spread of the Indian variant

Covid hospitalisations may not be spiralling out of control in Bolton, according to official NHS figures that show occupancy at the town’s major NHS trust fell yesterday despite the rapid spread of the Indian variant

The infections heat map from DHSC dashboard for Bolton shows in January the age rates increased pretty much across all age groups at the same time though in September there was a gradual increase from the younger to older age groups. 'This heat map shows the continuing lower rate in older age groups compared to previous waves

The infections heat map from DHSC dashboard for Bolton shows in January the age rates increased pretty much across all age groups at the same time though in September there was a gradual increase from the younger to older age groups. 'This heat map shows the continuing lower rate in older age groups compared to previous waves

The infections heat map from DHSC dashboard for Bolton shows in January the age rates increased pretty much across all age groups at the same time though in September there was a gradual increase from the younger to older age groups. ‘This heat map shows the continuing lower rate in older age groups compared to previous waves

Infections are currently relatively low among people aged 60 and over, most of whom will have been vaccinated, in Bolton. Just 61.5 per 100,000 people in the age range are currently infected with Covid — seven times lower than the infection rate in the general population of the town (567.9)

Matt Hancock launches furious fightback after Cummings branded him a ‘liar’ 

Matt Hancock today hit back at Dominic Cummings’ vicious attacks on his pandemic record including allegations he lied repeatedly, failed care home residents and should have been ‘sacked daily’ for ‘criminal, disgraceful behaviour’.

The Health Secretary told the Commons that the government had been ‘straight with people’ about the challenges that coronavirus posed and the difficult decisions.

Meanwhile on a visit to a hospital, Boris Johnson blanked questions over his former aide’s claims he was ‘unfit for the job’ of PM – and said he did not believe agree that government failures had cost tens insisted of thousands of lives.

The defiant comments came after Mr Hancock and Mr Johnson were accused by Mr Cummings of ‘disastrous’ mishandling of the pandemic in an extraordinary seven-hour committee appearance yesterday.

Summoned to answer an urgent question in the House, Mr Hancock said: ‘These unsubstantiated allegations around honesty are not true.

‘I have been straight with people in public and in private throughout.’

Mr Hancock also dismissed Mr Cummings’ criticism of his testing target, saying it was ‘how you get stuff done in government’.

‘I am proud of everyone in my department,’ he said. 

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However, this was fuelled by a drop in the number of NHS workers and seriously ill patients testing positive.

There was a small rise in cases among the general public (from 12,381 to 12,561), even though 40,000 fewer tests being carried out across England.

Swab positivity rates rose in around a third of the 300-plus authorities dotted across the country but fell in Bolton — Britain’s worst-hit borough, where the Indian variant is known to be rife. 

And Public Health England analysis released today showed cases have ticked up in every region except the East Midlands.

Infections rate jumped in 79 of England’s upper-tier authorities in the week ending May 23 — doubling in four parts of the country: Darlington, Wokingham, Oldham and Blackburn with Darwen. Outbreaks remained flat in 10 areas.

But the PHE data is based on positive tests and looks at data recorded each week, meaning it doesn’t take into account trends that can change day-by-day. Figures can also go up if more tests are carried out.

Dr Doyle said: ‘Covid infection rates have risen across most age groups and regions, but encouragingly the number in hospitals across the country remains low. 

‘However, we are concerned about the outbreak of the variant first discovered in India and in some areas hospitalisations have slightly risen. This is a reminder that we still have a way to go and need to remain cautious.

‘The best way to protect yourself and others is by getting the vaccine as soon as you are eligible.

‘You must have both doses to get the maximum protection against all the variants and even after the jabs you need to practise “hands, face, space, fresh air” to help keep everyone safe.’

For comparison, the King’s College London symptom-tracking app looks at people who become ill. Around a third of infected patients never develop any of the tell-tale warning signs.

Separate data analysed by MailOnline today, from the Department of Health, show that cases may be flat in four of eight Indian variant hotspots: Bolton, Leicester, Hounslow and North Tyneside.

Blackburn with Darwen, Kirklees and Bedford are the only areas of the eight where the disease is rife to have seen an obvious rise in infections.

Burnley has seen a fall in the average number of positive tests being spotted each day, based on the most recent data on the Department of Health’s coronavirus dashboard.

But those figures are based on daily cases, which can be skewed easily and are not as reliable. However, scientists still trust them. One Independent SAGE member used them to hail the fact that Bolton’s curve appears to have started to flatten.

The gold-standard coronavirus surveillance project, carried out by the Office for National Statistics and relied upon by ministers, last week warned of a rise in cases. It gets updated tomorrow.

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