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Coronavirus Cases Have Fallen Sharply In Lockdown – But They're Still High

The new study comes ahead of a major announcement from Boris Johnson on plans to ease lockdown

5 min read

A new study has shown a steep drop in the number of Covid-19 cases in England, as Boris Johnson prepares to detail the country's route out of the strict lockdown measures in place since January.

Imperial College London's latest React study has found there has been a "strong decline" in the prevalence of coronavirus infections since the return to full national lockdown measures at the start of this year. 

Boris Johnson is due to review new infection data over the coming days, before annoucing a staggered plan to return the country to normality, likely to start with the reopening of schools on 8 March. The prime minister has urged that the plans witll be "cautious, but irreversible"

The React study, based on 85,000 swap tests from randomly selected people, found infections had dropped by 80% in London since January, but that they still remain high overall.

It found that one in 200 people had tested positive for the virus between 4 and 13 February – similar to levels seen in late September 2020. It was around that time that Sage advised the government to introduce a "circuit breaker" lockdown as a result of rising coronavirus cases, a step the government did not ultimately take until November. 

According to the study, the current R number is 0.72 and that the number of infections is halving every 14.6 days.

The preprint research, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, concluded prevalence of the virus was also falling substantially across all age groups with the highest prevalence now among 18-24 year olds (0.89%) and 5-12 year olds (0.86%). 

While more than 15 million people in the UK have now recieved a first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, there is concern that the dramatic drop in cases could have more to do with strict lockdown measures that have been in place for more than a month. 

Imperial's scientists found that virus prevalence among people aged 65 and over had fallen in line with other age groups, leading them to conclude that "if vaccines are effective at reducing transmission as well as disease, this effect is not yet a major driver of prevalence trends."

They added: "Therefore, the observed falls described here are most likely due to reduced social interactions during lockdown."

Meanwhile, they found that large household sizes, living in a deprived neighbourhood, and Asian ethnicity were all associated with increased prevalence.

The data showed that healthcare and care home workers will still the most likely to test positive compared to people in other occupations.

Steven Riley, professor of infectious disease dynamics at Imperial College London, said: "This is good news.

"This is a better decline than many people would have hoped for, certainly when we were thinking about this at the end of December.

"This is all very encouraging and it's definitely good news."

He added: "The note of caution is that clearly there's still a lot of pressure on hospitals, both in terms of number of new admissions, and in the total number of people in hospitals.

"So the trend is great, but because prevalence is high, there essentially isn't a lot of headroom – there isn't a lot of leeway.

"Because if for any reason, we do return to growth then we're immediately at levels of hospital pressure the same as in the peak of the first one."

The data comes ahead of a major announcement from Boris Johnson next week on the roadmap for exiting the lockdown restrictions.

Despite pressure from dozens of his own MPs, Johnson has insisted any easing would be "cautious and prudent", saying it was "absolutely right" to take a "data not dates" approach.But the scientists warned that any easing of social distancing rules would have to been closely monitored due to fears that the high prevalence of the virus could trigger a resurgence in infections.

Speaking to the BBC's Today programme, Professor Paul Elliot said: "Nobody wants to be in lockdown any longer than they have to be but a note of warning - the prevalence rates are still very high.

"They are as high as they were in September when they were on the increase and the numbers of people in hospital currently are at a level that they were in the first wave so we really have to be cautious."

And he said lifting lockdown restrictions without triggering a surge in infections would be a "very difficult balance".

He added: "We could take a lot of encouragement from the decline that we're seeing, but I would say we're not out of the woods yet because the prevalence is still one in 200, and that obviously masks some differences in different areas and between different groups of people."

Responding to the report, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: "These findings show encouraging signs infections are now heading in the right direction across the country, but we must not drop our guard.

"Cases and hospital admissions remain high - over 20,000 Covid-19 patients are in hospital - so it is vital we all remain vigilant and follow the rules as our vaccination rollout continues at pace."

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