CASES of the new mutant Covid variant are dropping in London as rates start to flatten, data shows.
A chart showing the percentage of positive tests for the strain suggest cases starting falling in the capital and South East from the end of last month.
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Professor Chris Whitty, who presented the graph at last night’s Downing Street briefing, said there were “early indications of some levelling off”.
The variant, which first emerged in Kent in September, is 50 to 70 per cent more contagious than the strain that was dominant last year.
Experts warned in a doomsday paper last month that a total national lockdown with school closures may not be enough to stop it spreading.
However, these latest figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest that Tier 4 can contain it – providing schools are also closed.
But England’s chief medical officer last night warned the public not to “over-interpret” this data.
He said: “In some of the areas where it [new Covid variant cases] took off to the highest level and Tier 4 was brought in during a period when schools were closed, there may be some indications of some levelling off, but I don’t think we should over interpret that.
“It’s really clear that this new variant has been rising in all parts of the country, and what we’ve seen is that the bits of the country that had some of the had lower rates and previously controlled things – particularly in the North East and North West – the rate of increase has been higher than some of the southern areas which have very high rates already.”
It comes as Britain marked one of its darkest days in the pandemic so far with a record 60,916 cases confirmed and 830 deaths.
There may be some indications of some levelling off, but I don’t think we should over interpret that
Prof Chris Whitty
While Boris Johnson also said that one in 50 people in England – nearly 1.2 million people – are infected with Covid.
Official data shows one in 50 people in England has the killer virus — and 26,467 are being treated for it in hospital.
In some areas of the UK, numbers testing positive are even higher – including in London, where one in 30 had the virus between December 27 and January 2.
These figures differ from the earlier chart, which only show the number of positive tests with the new strain.
But other experts have suggested that the situation may not be as “worrying” as it seems.
Professor Tim Spector, who leads the ZOE Covid Symptom Study app, shared a graph on Twitter which shows the number of excess deaths in England and Wales during the pandemic, compared with other countries including Germany, Spain and Norway.
He said: “Although the UK is facing major NHS problems due to a lack of capacity and huge numbers of cases in the South – the number of excess deaths is currently not as worrying as we go into lockdown 3.0 and we are already seeing the daily rates of new cases start to flatten.”
Scientists have been concerned people who’ve already had Covid may struggle to fight off the new variant while questions were raised over the effectiveness of a vaccine.
But, Sir Patrick Vallance offered hope that the new variant might not be as much of a threat as first feared as he revealed those who have previously been infected may already have protection.
England’s chief scientific officer told the press briefing: “What we know is that the 22 changes in the genetic code made the virus more transmissible, but as far as we can see it doesn’t make it hidden from the immune system so if you had an infection before, the evidence is that you probably neutralise this virus as well.
“The expectation is the same for the vaccine.”
However, he did warn it is possible the South African variant, first found in the UK in December, may be tougher for the immune system to fight.
He also said it may have some effect on vaccine effectiveness but is unlikely to “abolish” their effect.
In more a glimmer of hope, the PM said 1.3 million Brits have already been vaccinated — including a quarter of all over-80s.
He also revealed the first mass vaccination centres will open next week as part of a Covid jab blitz.
Mr Johnson has pledged to offer 13 million doses by the middle of February.
As part of a radical ramping-up of the immunisation programme, the first seven of 50 mass vaccination sites will start treating vulnerable patients.
Each mega-centre will deliver thousands of jabs a day.
Speaking last night, the PM, said: “By February 15, the NHS is committed to offering a vaccination to everyone in the top four priority groups including older care home residents and staff, everyone over 70, all frontline NHS and care staff and all those who are clinically extremely vulnerable.
“And to help us with meeting this target we already have 595 GP-led sites providing vaccines, with a further 180 coming on stream later this week.
“We have 107 hospital sites — with a further 100 later this week.
“So that is almost a thousand vaccination sites across the country by the end of this week.
“And next week we will also have seven vaccination centres opening in places such as sports stadia and exhibition centres.”
He also defended the latest national lockdown measures, saying: “I believe that when everybody looks at the position, people understand overwhelmingly that we have no choice.
“When the Office for National Statistics is telling us that more than two per cent of the population is now infected — that’s over one million people in England.
“And when we have reported another 60,000 new cases, and when the number of patients in hospitals in England is now 40 per cent higher than at the first peak in April.
“I think obviously everybody — you all — want to be sure that we in government are now using every second of this lockdown to put that invisible shield around the elderly and the vulnerable in the form of vaccination and so to begin to bring this crisis to an end.”
Dr Yvonne Doyle, Medical Director for Public Health England, said: “The rapid rise in cases is highly concerning and will sadly mean yet more pressure on our health services in the depths of winter.
“That is why if we can, we must stay at home, reduce contacts and do everything possible to break the spread of this virus.”