Ursula von der Leyen threatens to halt exports of vaccines if bloc doesn’t get its deliveries first

Ursula von der Leyen has threatened to halt exports of AstraZeneca vaccines if the EU does not receive its deliveries first, in a worsening row over delayed shipments that has caused international tensions.

The EU chief told the British-Swedish pharmaceutical company it has to come through on deliveries to the bloc or it would block exports of jabs made on its turf, including the Pfizer vaccine which is needed for at least 13million Brits’ second doses. 

In an interview with Germany’s Funke media group she said: ‘We have the option of banning a planned export. 

‘That’s the message to AstraZeneca: you fulfil your contract with Europe first before you start delivering to other countries.’

The warning comes as the European Union struggles to speed up its Covid inoculation campaign, just as many member states are battling rising infection rates that have forced renewed restrictions.

Von der Leyen said AstraZeneca had delivered only 30 percent of the 90 million vaccine doses it had promised for the first quarter of the year.

The company has blamed production delays at its EU plants, but European officials are furious that AstraZeneca has been able to deliver its UK contract in full while falling short on the continent.

It comes as a top British scientist who is leading Covid-19 vaccine research warned the Government faces a ‘challenge’ to deliver all second jabs within 12 weeks.

And Pfizer urged the EU to back down on its threat to block vaccine exports to the UK, claiming Britain could hit back by impounding crucial UK-manufactured ingredients for vaccines produced in Europe.

Ursula von der Leyen threatened to halt exports of AstraZeneca vaccines if the EU did not receive its deliveries first, in a worsening row over delayed shipments that has caused international tensions

Ursula von der Leyen threatened to halt exports of AstraZeneca vaccines if the EU did not receive its deliveries first, in a worsening row over delayed shipments that has caused international tensions

Ursula von der Leyen threatened to halt exports of AstraZeneca vaccines if the EU did not receive its deliveries first, in a worsening row over delayed shipments that has caused international tensions

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson receives the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid vaccine at St Thomas’ Hospital in London yesterday

The UK deal with Serum in India was announced on March 2 but Mr Poonawalla had warned ten days earlier that supplies were not running smoothly. Pictured: A map of vaccine manufacturing sites across Europe and India

The UK deal with Serum in India was announced on March 2 but Mr Poonawalla had warned ten days earlier that supplies were not running smoothly. Pictured: A map of vaccine manufacturing sites across Europe and India

The UK deal with Serum in India was announced on March 2 but Mr Poonawalla had warned ten days earlier that supplies were not running smoothly. Pictured: A map of vaccine manufacturing sites across Europe and India

On another day of coronavirus chaos:

  • A government scientist has warned foreign trips are ‘extremely unlikely’ this summer as Europe struggles to control a surge in coronavirus cases;
  • Boris Johnson received the AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine last night after the row with the EU;
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel, 66, backed the  Oxford jab and said she WILL have it after earlier claiming she was ‘too old’;
  • Britain’s daily Covid cases drop by a quarter in a week to 4,802 while deaths fall by 42% to 101; 
  • SAGE has warned that a resurgence of Covid in Europe could soon lead to a rise in infections in Britain, saying the country is at a ‘more fragile point’ than it was a few weeks ago
  • SAGE upgraded its estimate of the R rate – how fast the virus is spreading – in Britain, pushing it closer to one to a possible 0.9, meaning the outbreak is not shrinking as quickly as it was in February and late January. 
  • Stats show Pfizer vaccine was used for just 200,000 new patients out of 2.2million in the first week of March as AstraZeneca’s jab takes over;
  • 68,000 Britons have now been fined for lockdown breaches including a young man dragged out of bed by cops and an 82-year-old questioned for having tea in a garden 

European Commission president von der Leyen had on Wednesday already threatened to invoke emergency powers to block European exports of Covid-19 vaccines to ensure ‘reciprocity’ with other suppliers.

‘All options are on the table,’ the former German defence minister said, adding that the vaccine situation would be addressed among EU leaders at talks next week.

The EU has already set up special oversight of vaccine exports in which manufacturers contracted to supply Europe must declare if they intend to export doses outside the bloc.

Most of the EU’s worry is over Britain, where the inoculation campaign has progressed at a much faster pace than in continental Europe.

Brussels has accused London of operating a de facto export ban to achieve its vaccine success, a claim furiously denied by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government.

The EU’s export ban mechanism must first be triggered in an individual member state and then be approved by the European Commission before it can be enforced.

The mechanism has so far only been applied once, with Italy blocking the export of a 250,000 dose shipment of AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia, citing ‘persistent shortage’ and ‘delays in supply’.

Not all EU members support export bans, which could upset global supply chains, and countries like Belgium and the Netherlands have urged caution.

Professor Robin Shattock of Imperial College London, who is leading Covid-19 vaccine research, warned the Government faces a \'challenge\' to deliver all second jabs within 12 weeks

Professor Robin Shattock of Imperial College London, who is leading Covid-19 vaccine research, warned the Government faces a \'challenge\' to deliver all second jabs within 12 weeks

Professor Robin Shattock of Imperial College London, who is leading Covid-19 vaccine research, warned the Government faces a ‘challenge’ to deliver all second jabs within 12 weeks

Britain\'s Covid vaccine drive hit a record high today after 660,276 doses were dished out in 24 hours, official figures revealed

Britain\'s Covid vaccine drive hit a record high today after 660,276 doses were dished out in 24 hours, official figures revealed

Britain’s Covid vaccine drive hit a record high today after 660,276 doses were dished out in 24 hours, official figures revealed

If the European Union blocked all exports of coronavirus vaccines made on its turf, Britain could remain self-sufficient and still get jabs to the entire population.

AstraZeneca’s jab is made at home in England and Wales  and the UK has ordered so many doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab – 100million – that in a worst-case scenario it could immunise the entire adult population (around 50million people) using the company’s jab alone.

However, it could come under pressure on second dose supply, with around 13million people have already had at least one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, which is made in Puurs, Belgium.

This means that Britain has to have another 13million doses at least, in order to make sure those people are fully protected. 

And it also hopes for another 14million so it can immunise the total 20million for whom doses were ordered.

It came as Professor Robin Shattock of Imperial College London, who is leading Covid-19 vaccine research, warned the Government faces a ‘challenge’ to deliver all second jabs within 12 weeks. 

He told BBC Breakfast that the Government needed to make sure as many people as possible receive both doses of the vaccine to ‘not lose the advantage we are already gaining’.

He said: ‘We need to get people vaccinated as soon as possible, and get those second doses delivered within that 12-week period, which is going to be a challenge to do that and deliver vaccine to people who haven’t had their first dose.’

Asked about new variants, Professor Shattock added: ‘Something we have to be careful about is the potential for new variants to arise and the vaccine may have a selective pressure.

‘It emphasises again we can’t unlock too quickly. We need to make sure that as many people have both doses of the vaccine so we can get on top of it and not lose the advantage we are already gaining.’ 

And asked how well the vaccine was working in terms of reducing transmission, he said: ‘I think it’s really difficult to say at this stage.

‘We are seeing a reduction in hospitalisation and in some parts of the country, a reduction in transmission, that’s a good thing. The vaccine may be contributing to that.

‘But we are seeing in other parts of the world, it’s going down in the US for example and they’re not as far ahead with their vaccine campaign, so we can’t be complacent.’

Supply figures for the vaccines were always expected to dip in April and May, according to projections published by the Scottish Government in January \u2014 before the UK had struck a deal for 10million doses from India. Therefore, the India delivery delay is believed to be separate from these figures

Supply figures for the vaccines were always expected to dip in April and May, according to projections published by the Scottish Government in January \u2014 before the UK had struck a deal for 10million doses from India. Therefore, the India delivery delay is believed to be separate from these figures

Supply figures for the vaccines were always expected to dip in April and May, according to projections published by the Scottish Government in January — before the UK had struck a deal for 10million doses from India. Therefore, the India delivery delay is believed to be separate from these figures

And government scientist Dr Mike Tildesley warned foreign trips are ‘extremely unlikely’ this summer as Europe struggles to control a surge in coronavirus cases.

In an unexpected blow for sun-starved Brits, he said there was a danger travellers could bring back new Covid variants which are less susceptible to vaccines.

The Warwick University professor, who is a member of the Spi-M modelling group, warned it means overseas jaunts for the average holidaymaker are in doubt.

Dr Tildesley told the Today programme: ‘I think that international travel this summer is, for the average holidaymaker, sadly I think, extremely unlikely.

‘I think we are running a real risk if we do start to have lots of people going overseas in July and August because of the potential for bringing more of these new variants back into the country.

‘What is really dangerous is if we jeopardise our vaccination campaign by having these variants where the vaccines don’t work as effectively spreading more rapidly.’

Outbreaks of the South African variant in countries throughout the Continent is causing particular concern, sparking calls for tougher travel restrictions.

Some experts fear European getaways in May and potentially in the summer months – much anticipated by millions of Britons – are now a doubt.

Pfizer urged the EU to back down on its threat to block vaccine exports to the UK, claiming Britain could hit back by impounding crucial UK-manufactured ingredients for vaccines produced in Europe. 

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen issued the warning this week amid the shambolic distribution of jabs on the continent. 

She threatened to block exports of vaccines to Britain while complaining that the EU was ‘still waiting’ for Astazeneca doses to be delivered from the UK, where the vaccine drive is far outpacing efforts on the continent.  

It comes amid criticism of European leaders for suspending the Astrazeneca jab over blood clot fears despite there being no evidence that the injection increases the risk. 

Both European and British  regulators have insisted the vaccine is safe and that the tiny handful of clotting cases – out of millions of jab recipients – is not linked to the injections.

Denmark today reported two cases of hospital staff with blood clots and cerebral haemorrhage after receiving the AstraZeneca Covid vaccination.

The Capital Region of Denmark, the authority that runs public hospitals in Copenhagen, said that one of the hospital staff had died and both had received the AstraZeneca vaccine less than 14 days before getting ill.

The Danish medicines agency confirmed it had received two ‘serious reports’, without giving further details. There were no details of when the hospital staff got ill.

Some countries including Germany and France this week reversed their decision to temporarily pause use of the AstraZeneca vaccine after reports of cases of rare brain blood clots sent scientists and governments scrambling to determine any link.

Denmark, which put use of the vaccine on hold on March 11, has not yet resumed use.

The European Union’s drug watchdog said on Thursday it is still convinced the benefits of the vaccine outweigh the risks following an investigation into reports of blood clots that prompted more than a dozen nations to suspend its use.

European Medicines Agency (EMA) director Emer Cooke said on Thursday the watchdog could not definitively rule out a link between blood clot incidents and the vaccine in its investigation into 30 cases of a rare blood clotting condition.

But she said the ‘clear’ conclusion of the review was that the benefits in protecting people from the risk of death or hospitalisation outweighs the possible risks. The issue deserves further analysis, the EMA said.

AstraZeneca, which developed the shot with Oxford University, has said a review covering more than 17 million people who had received its shots in the EU and Britain had found no evidence of an increased risk of blood clots. 

Statistics from the MHRA show that while 78 per cent of all first doses were Pfizer jabs between December 8 and January 24, this split reversed between February 7 and March 7 so that it only accounted for 34 per cent. Just nine per cent of all first doses in the week to March 7 (200,000) were supplied by Pfizer

Statistics from the MHRA show that while 78 per cent of all first doses were Pfizer jabs between December 8 and January 24, this split reversed between February 7 and March 7 so that it only accounted for 34 per cent. Just nine per cent of all first doses in the week to March 7 (200,000) were supplied by Pfizer

Statistics from the MHRA show that while 78 per cent of all first doses were Pfizer jabs between December 8 and January 24, this split reversed between February 7 and March 7 so that it only accounted for 34 per cent. Just nine per cent of all first doses in the week to March 7 (200,000) were supplied by Pfizer

It is thought there are currently 7.5million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine sitting un-used in Europe as a result of the bans.

However, von der Leyen’s threat has sparked a response from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer and partner BioNTech. 

The firms have told Brussels of the potential power held by the UK, which could see officials preventing raw materials needed for the jab being shipped from northern England if the row continues. 

A chemicals firm in the small town of Snaith, North Yorkshire, signed a five-year contract with the EU before Christmas and has since delivered ‘fatty molecules’ to Pfizer factories in the bloc, according to the Telegraph.

If Boris Johnson and his top team move to stop deliveries flowing across the Channel, it could see production at its main site in Belgium halted completely within weeks.

A senior Government source distanced themselves from the suggestion, but Pfizer and BioNTech are believed to have issued a private warning over the ramifications if Downing Street is provoked further.

Lipid nanoparticles – specialised fatty molecules used to encase the vaccine and make sure it is safely administered to human cells – are in short supply globally, and the drugmaker is said to be ‘heavily dependent’ on supplies from the UK. 

Croda International is one of only a handful of companies in the world which can supply the substance and has quadrupled its factory capacity to meet demand, which it predict will generate more than £90m in sales. 

A Pfizer spokesman told the Telegraph: ‘We have been clear with all stakeholders that the free movement of goods and supply across borders is absolutely critical to Pfizer and the patients we serve.’

NHS England figures show 79 per cent of over-55s in the country had at least one dose of the vaccine by March 14, but London is significantly lagging behind in uptake

TOP 10 AREAS FOR VACCINE UPTAKE AMONG OVER-55s 

Isles of Scilly

Stafford

Mid Suffolk

Wyre Forest

Isle of Wight

East Suffolk

Wyre

Babergh

Malvern Hills

Harborough

93.8 per cent

89.4 per cent

89.2 per cent

89.1 per cent

88.7 per cent

88.5 per cent

88.3 per cent

87.9 per cent

87.4 per cent

87.2 per cent

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BOTTOM 10 AREAS FOR VACCINE UPTAKE AMONG OVER-55s 

Hackney

Newham

Kensington and Chelsea

Southwark

Westminster

Lambeth

Hammersmith and Fulham

Islington

Lewisham

Tower Hamlets

59.2 per cent

60.2 per cent

61.1 per cent

61.3 per cent

61.4 per cent

62.0 per cent

63.7 per cent

64.7 per cent

64.8 per cent

65.3 per cent

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It comes as official data suggests Britain has almost stopped giving out the Pfizer Covid vaccine to new patients so it can save supplies for second doses.

The NHS appears to now be rationing the jab, which was used to kick off the rollout in December, and only used it for one in 10 new patients in the first week of March.

In January, when AstraZeneca‘s vaccine was first approved, Pfizer’s still accounted for three quarters of all first doses but this fell to just nine per cent in the first week of March, when only 200,000 new patients were given it.       

MailOnline understands deliveries of the Belgian-made jab will be smaller from April because of a planned reduction and the ongoing EU block threat. 

Ministers must be careful with the supply they do get because they’re already over halfway through supplies planned up to June – and they owe around 10m people a second dose. 

The Department of Health said everyone will get their second doses within 12 weeks as planned. Both the Department and Pfizer declined to comment on the delivery schedule but insist there is no problem with supplies, amid reports on social media of Britons being told there is a shortage.

AstraZeneca’s vaccine, which is available in much larger quantities, is now taking over as the country’s staple vaccine as medics rattle through the priority lists.

It is a promising sign that cases are still continuing to come down despite a huge increase in the number of people getting tested for Covid that came with schools reopening - there are now an average of 1.5million tests per day, up from 843,000 per weekday at the end of February

It is a promising sign that cases are still continuing to come down despite a huge increase in the number of people getting tested for Covid that came with schools reopening - there are now an average of 1.5million tests per day, up from 843,000 per weekday at the end of February

It is a promising sign that cases are still continuing to come down despite a huge increase in the number of people getting tested for Covid that came with schools reopening – there are now an average of 1.5million tests per day, up from 843,000 per weekday at the end of February

The Covid Symptom Study, run by ZOE and King\'s College London , estimated there are now around 4,470 people becoming ill every day \u2014 down nearly a fifth from the 5,494 figure last week

The Covid Symptom Study, run by ZOE and King\'s College London , estimated there are now around 4,470 people becoming ill every day \u2014 down nearly a fifth from the 5,494 figure last week

The Covid Symptom Study, run by ZOE and King’s College London , estimated there are now around 4,470 people becoming ill every day — down nearly a fifth from the 5,494 figure last week

But a hiccup in supplies of that because of a blocked shipment of 5million doses from India – combined with a need to reserve Pfizer stocks – means the number of people getting first doses will be ‘significantly constrained’ in April, the NHS has warned.

This means millions of people in their 40s will likely have to wait until at least May to get their first doses. But Whitehall insiders are still hopeful that some will get jabs ahead of schedule, amid claims under-50s would be invited by Easter. 

In response to the row earlier this week, Health Secretary Hancock telling a Downing Street press conference that ‘we fully expect’ vaccine contracts to be delivered on. 

Meanwhile, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said that Ms von der Leyen’s comments flew in the face of ‘direct assurances’ that contracts will be honoured and Tory MPs accused her of ‘playing politics with people’s lives’. 

HOW BADLY WOULD UK’S VACCINE DRIVE SUFFER IF THE EU BLOCKED VACCINE EXPORTS?

If the European Union blocked all exports of coronavirus vaccines made on its turf, Britain could remain self-sufficient and still get jabs to the entire population.

However, it could come under pressure on second dose supply.

EU president Ursula von der Leyen suggested this week that the bloc could start an export ban on vaccines – the second time that threat has been made – because the continent’s rollout is going so badly. 

WHICH VACCINES ARE MADE IN THE EU? 

The Pfizer/BioNTech jab is currently the only vaccine used in the UK but manufactured in the EU, at the company’s plant in Puurs, Belgium.

AstraZeneca’s jab is made at home in England and Wales.

Moderna’s – which will become available in about two weeks’ time at the start of April – is produced in Switzerland, which is not an EU member and so not under von der Leyen’s jurisdiction.

The Janssen vaccine, which has not yet been approved by Britain but is likely to be next, will be made in various factories around the world, including in France, Belgium, the US and Japan. Britain’s supply is likely to come from the EU but is not expected until the second half of this year in any case.

CAN WE RELY ON ASTRAZENECA? 

The good news is that the UK has ordered so many doses of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab – 100million – that in a worst-case scenario it could immunise the entire adult population (around 50million people) using that one alone.

And supply of the Oxford/AstraZeneca jab in April and May will be around three to four times larger than of Pfizer and over 20 times as large as those from Moderna – at around three to four million available per week, according to a delivery schedule leaked by the Scottish Government in January – meaning the country will be able to rely on those for the vast majority of its vaccinations.

WHAT ABOUT PFIZER SECOND DOSES? 

The bad news is that around 13million people have already had at least one dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, and the majority of them are still waiting for a second jab, which are likely only to come from within the EU.

This means that Britain has to have another 13million doses at least, in order to make sure those people are fully protected. 

And it also hopes for another 14million so it can immunise the total 20million for whom doses were ordered. 

Pfizer and the UK Government have both refused to comment on the supply chain but deliveries are expected to be smaller in April.

The Department of Health may have to stop using Pfizer supplies for first-time vaccinations within weeks if the spectre of export issues remains, MailOnline understands, because it must begin to stockpile supplies to cope with the huge demand for second doses that will come in April, three months after the rollout exploded in January.

The delivery projections accidentally published by the Scottish Government suggest its supplies of Pfizer will tumble from 130,000 per week throughout March to just 78,000 per week in April and May.

This could equate to approximately 1.5million per week for the whole UK dropping to 950,000 per week, according to the distribution formula used by the Government. 

The UK vaccinated more than 2.5million people per week throughout most of January and February and around half of all doses used were Pfizer, meaning the demand for second doses could exceed one million per week in April and May.

If this is the case the Government will have to use all of the projected 950,000 per week suggested in the Scottish delivery schedule while also hoping it has enough left over to meet this rolling demand – leaving little to no capacity for people to receive the Pfizer jab for the first time.

Pfizer declined to comment on its supply chain but said: ‘In the UK, we are continuing to liaise closely with the Government to deliver the 40million doses of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine that we have committed to supply before the end of the year and can confirm that overall projected supply remains the same for quarter one (January to March).’

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Boris Johnson gets the AstraZeneca jab: PM backs Oxford vaccine after EU’s humiliating U-turn over politicized ‘blood clot’ fears – as a record 660,000 doses are given today with HALF of adults inoculated

Boris Johnson today joined the millions of vaccinated Britons after receiving his first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab. 

The Prime Minister, 56, gave a triumphant thumbs up after having his inoculation at St Thomas’ in central London – the same hospital he was admitted when struck down with Covid in April last year. 

Encouraging others to also get jabbed, he said he ‘literally couldn’t feel a thing’ when his nurse, Lily, injected him in his left arm.

By receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine himself, Mr Johnson is sending the strongest possible signal he believes it to be safe following hesitancy from European leaders. 

Countries including France, Germany and Italy had suspended use of the jab after a handful of recipients – out of millions – experienced blot clotting.

Faced with comparably sluggish rollouts and low take-up, their action was widely condemned as a political calculation which has now been reversed after the regulator declared it safe. Italian PM Mario Draghi tonight said he will have the AstraZeneca vaccine. 

Taking a thinly-veiled swipe at his Continental counterparts, the Prime Minister added: ‘Listen to the scientists, listen to what the European Medicines Agency had to say, to what the MHRA [the British regulator] has said. 

‘The risk is Covid – this is a great thing to do.’ 

Britain has now vaccinated over half of its adult population and the rollout yesterday hit a record pace after 660,276 doses were dished out. 

Boris Johnson today joined the millions of Britons to be vaccinated after receiving his first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab

Boris Johnson today joined the millions of Britons to be vaccinated after receiving his first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab

Boris Johnson today joined the millions of Britons to be vaccinated after receiving his first dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca jab 

The Prime Minister, 56, gave a triumphant thumbs up after having his inoculation at St Thomas\' in central London - the same hospital he was admitted to when struck down with Covid in April last year

The Prime Minister, 56, gave a triumphant thumbs up after having his inoculation at St Thomas\' in central London - the same hospital he was admitted to when struck down with Covid in April last year

The Prime Minister, 56, gave a triumphant thumbs up after having his inoculation at St Thomas’ in central London – the same hospital he was admitted to when struck down with Covid in April last year 

Taking to Twitter shortly after being jabbed, Mr Johnson said: ‘I’ve just received my first Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine dose. Thank you to all of the incredible scientists, NHS staff and volunteers who helped make this happen. 

‘Getting the jab is the best thing we can do to get back to the lives we miss so much. Let’s get the jab done.’ 

Latest Department of Health data shows 528,260 first doses were administered on Thursday, on top of another 132,016 second shots.

Fellow cabinet ministers including Grant Shapps, Therese Coffey and Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi have also been jabbed. 

The PM’s jab will put him among the thousands of Britons expected to receive their vaccine today. 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock said a ‘mammoth team effort’ had led to Britain hitting record pace, while health minister Lord Bethell pointed out it meant nearly 1 per cent of the country had been jabbed in a single day.

The programme had been steadily gaining pace this week, after 529,119 total doses were given out on Tuesday and 581,855 on Wednesday. Some 26.2million Britons have now received their first dose, the equivalent of half the adult population in Britain, and 2m have received both injections.  

Despite the promising week, the NHS is gearing up for a significant shortage of vaccine doses next month due to supply issues in India. 

A shipment of 4million AstraZeneca shots from has been delayed, for reasons that aren’t totally clear, with No10 holding secret talks with New Delhi to get the roll-out back on track. 

It means Britons aged over 40 who were expecting to be called for their appointments next month will need to wait until at least May while ministers prioritise current stock for over-50s and for people due their second doses. 

Britain’s daily Covid cases drop by a quarter in a week to 4,802 while deaths fall by 42% to 101 – but SAGE ‘fears third wave battering Europe could spread to the UK’ and England’s R rate rises for first time since December to 0.9

Britain yesterday saw Covid cases fall again, dropping by a quarter from last week to 4,802 positive tests in a day while deaths also dropped by 42 per cent to 101.

Two other weekly studies, by the Office for National Statistics and the Covid Symptom Study, showed cases are still coming down significantly, and the country had its best ever performance in the vaccination drive on Thursday when it administered a massive 660,276 jabs including 528,260 people getting their first.

But SAGE has warned that a resurgence of Covid in Europe could soon lead to a rise in infections in Britain, saying the country is at a ‘more fragile point’ than it was a few weeks ago.

Cases are on the rise again in countries including France, Germany and Belgium and one of No10’s top scientific advisers has warned that spikes on the continent tend to lead to a spike in Britain two to three weeks later without any obvious link to travel. 

What ties the two together isn’t clear, they said, but ministers and officials in the UK must watch closely in the coming weeks to make sure infections don’t take off again.

The number of people believed to be infected with coronavirus in England continues to tumble and is now at just 160,200, according to the Office for National Statistics. This equates to just three in every 1,000 people

The number of people believed to be infected with coronavirus in England continues to tumble and is now at just 160,200, according to the Office for National Statistics. This equates to just three in every 1,000 people

The number of people believed to be infected with coronavirus in England continues to tumble and is now at just 160,200, according to the Office for National Statistics. This equates to just three in every 1,000 people

SAGE today upgraded its estimate of the R rate – how fast the virus is spreading – in Britain, pushing it closer to one to a possible 0.9, meaning the outbreak is not shrinking as quickly as it was in February and late January.

But SAGE cautioned the R rate is based on data too old to take into account the effects of reopening schools and experts say the rate is no longer a key measure of the country’s outbreak because case increases don’t have the same effect on hospital admissions or deaths – which will be the key warning signs in future – thanks to huge vaccination efforts. 

It is a promising sign that cases are still continuing to come down despite a huge increase in the number of people getting tested for Covid that came with schools reopening – there are now an average of 1.5million tests per day, up from 843,000 per weekday at the end of February.

And positive data show that cases are continuing to come down in the UK, with the Office for National Statistics estimating the total number of people carrying the virus in England is down 20 per cent in a week, to 160,200. This is the equivalent of one in 340 people. For comparison, as many as one in 50 people were infected during the peak of the crisis in January. 

The ONS report said cases were still clearly coming down in in the West Midlands, East of England, South West and London, but the decline may have stopped in other areas.

And the Covid Symptom Study, run by ZOE and King’s College London, estimated there are now around 3,200 people becoming ill every day across the country — down nearly a quarter from the 4,200 per day last week. 

But the speed at which the outbreak is shrinking has slowed, with the previous week seeing cases fall by a third. Experts behind the symptom-tracking app blamed the levelling off on schools reopening. Professor Tim Spector, an epidemiologist leading the study, said the levelling off was expected and insisted there was ‘no reason to worry’.  

SAGE estimated Britain’s overall R rate was between 0.6 and 0.9 – meaning every ten people with the virus infect six to nine others. But this was up slightly on last week, when the rate was between 0.6 and 0.8.

It was crucial for the R value to stay below one, which means that not everyone who has the virus is passing it on, ensuring the second wave continues to shrink.

The R rate was below one in every region of England. 

But every area was also estimated to have a value that could be as high as 0.9, above the levels last week and suggesting the outbreak’s rate of decline had slowed. 

The rate was lowest – between 0.6 and 0.9 – in the East of England, London, the Midlands and the South West.

And rate was highest – between 0.7 and 0.9 – in the North East and Yorkshire, the North West and the South East. 

Professor Spector said scientists had expected the decline in infections would slow, and warned that it could begin to accelerate again in the future. 

He said: ‘After steady falls at the beginning of the week, we’ve seen cases levelling off in recent days, especially in Scotland, Wales and the North-East of England. 

‘This is to be expected after reopening schools across the country and is no reason to worry. 

‘We’re keeping a close eye on cases in school-aged children and so far there’s nothing alarming about the data. I believe we’ll see case numbers holding steady for a little while before cases drop again.’

Professor James Naismith, a biologist at research centre the Rosalind Franklin Institute in Oxford, said the data showed lockdown had saved ‘thousands of lives’.

‘Today’s ONS numbers bring reassurance that for the UK as a whole the prevalence of the virus has continued to decline (to around three per 1,000 people),’ he said.

‘Broken down, the ONS numbers by different parts of the UK tell slightly different stories. Of note is prevalence in Scotland may have increased but has certainly not decreased. Within England, East Midlands may also have shown a small uptick. The so called Kent variant is now dominant in UK.’

Rates were lowest in the South West of England, with 252 registering symptoms per day, and the East of England, where just 297 became ill each day

Rates were lowest in the South West of England, with 252 registering symptoms per day, and the East of England, where just 297 became ill each day

Rates were lowest in the South West of England, with 252 registering symptoms per day, and the East of England, where just 297 became ill each day

Today’s ONS report, based on random swab tests of 160,000 people in the week ending March 13, predicted that 0.29 per cent of people would test positive for coronavirus if the whole country were tested.

The rate of infection was lower in Wales (0.23 per cent) but higher in Scotland (0.37 per cent) and Northern Ireland (0.32 per cent). 

In England’s regions the report said that cases were falling in most places but potentially flat or rising in others.

The ONS said: ‘The percentage of people testing positive has decreased in the West Midlands, East of England, South West and London in the week ending 13 March 2021. 

‘The trend is uncertain for the rest of the regions, although, there may be early signs of an increase for the East Midlands. Caution should be taken in over-interpreting any small movements in the latest trend.’

Although there was concern some regions might be seeing cases increase, none of them had a rate of infection higher than 0.4 per cent – one in 250 people.

The positivity rate was 0.4 per cent in East Midlands, Yorkshire and the Humber and the North East; 0.3 per cent in the South East, North West and West Midlands; and 0.2 per cent in London, the South West and East of England.

The Covid Symptom Study estimates one in 823 people suffered from symptoms last week, with 3,226 people becoming ill per day in England, compared to 648 in Scotland, 172 in Northern Ireland and 424 in Wales. 

Just one in 1,369 school-aged children developed Covid symptoms, the data suggested. 

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