Evidence suggests that the transmission rate of coronavirus across England is beginning to increase, scientists have warned, as lockdown restrictions are eased. As a result the current decline in the national death rate may not continue beyond mid-June, they said.
The study by Public Health England and Cambridge university highlights regional differences in Covid-19 transmission, with north-west England an area of particular concern. The R reproduction number there is probably just above 1, meaning that the number of infections is likely to rise.
On Friday the UK’s official coronavirus-related death toll breached the symbolic figure of 40,000 — double the number the UK’s chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said he hoped the UK would stay below. The government confirmed another 357 people who tested positive for the virus had died, taking the total official deaths figure to 40,261.
Sage, the government’s scientific advisory group for emergencies, estimated that R for the UK as a whole was in the range of 0.7 to 0.9 and for England 0.7 to 1. Although the PHE-Cambridge team is one of several whose research feeds into Sage’s national figures, its work focuses particularly on regional differences.
Release of its figures added to growing concern in the north-west that Covid-19 is transmitting unevenly across the country, possibly requiring local or regional lockdowns. Hospital admissions for the disease in Greater Manchester have increased in the past two weeks, rising to 29 per day by Tuesday, compared with 18 a day two weeks earlier.
Colin Cox, Cumbria’s Director of Public Health, said: “This really underlines the importance of people maintaining social distancing and continuing to follow government guidance as lockdown restrictions begin to ease. We will be monitoring the R number very carefully and a tightening of lockdown restrictions could be possible if the R number increases.”
Asked about the study at the daily Downing Street briefing, health secretary Matt Hancock said R was closer to one in south-west and north-west England than in other parts of the country but “it remains below 1 in each area”.
“It’s very important that you look at all of these studies in the round,” he added. “The overall assessment brought together by Sage . . . is the one that I look at.”
“That doesn’t take away from the need that we spot and crack down on localised outbreaks,” Mr Hancock said. “We want to increasingly have an approach in tackling local lockdowns where we spot a flare-up.”
Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham told Sky News: “There is a very real cause for concern in a number of English regions. Is it safe to proceed with the further relaxation of lockdown that the government is proposing? Where does this leave schools?”
Another study, released earlier on Friday, gave more optimistic findings. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics’s weekly infection survey showed the number of people with Covid-19 in England falling quite fast.
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On average 53,000 people in the community were infected with the coronavirus during the period May 17 to May 30, ONS estimates, equivalent to 0.1 per cent of the population. The proportion infected during the previous two weeks (May 3 to 16) was three times greater.
“The downward trend in those testing positive for Covid-19 is statistically significant,” said ONS. The survey is based on tests performed on 20,000 people in 9,000 households selected to be a representative sample of the population.
The estimated number of new infections since the survey started on April 27 is around 5,600 per day. The comparable estimate released last week was close to 8,000 per day.