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Wednesday, 3 February 2021

Covid cases and deaths continue to fall: UK records another 19,202 infections and 1,322 fatalities in 25% week-on-week drop

  • Department of Health figures show both case and deaths counts have dropped 25 per cent week-on-week
  • It was also revealed that 10million vulnerable Britons have now had their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine
  • A surveillance study revealed today around one in seven people in England had antibodies by mid-JanuaryCoronavirus cases are continuing to fall across the UK as officials today recorded another 19,202 infections and 1,322 fatalities.

    Department of Health figures show both daily counts have dropped 25 per cent week-on-week as the lockdown continues to thwart the spread of the virus.

    In yet another glimmer of hope, it was also revealed that 10million vulnerable Britons have now had their first dose of a vaccine. Ministers have pledged to inoculate 13.9million of the most at-risk people by mid-February, in the hopes of easing lockdown restrictions from the start of March.Boris Johnson — who is under growing pressure to commit to easing the lockdown in England — is set to address the nation this evening. 

    The Prime Minister, who will be flanked by chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty, is likely to brag about the UK's vaccine roll-out and hail the findings of a landmark study yesterday that found a single dose of Oxford's Covid jab is 76 per cent effective after 12 weeks and that two doses can curb transmission. 

    The figures comes after a major surveillance study revealed today around one in seven people in England — the equivalent of 8.6million — had coronavirus antibodies by mid-January.

    The Office for National Statistics (ONS) tested the blood of more than 1,300 people across the country and found 15.3 per cent tested positive for antibodies — up from 10 per cent in December. The proportion was as high as 21 per cent in London

    Antibodies are substances made by the immune system in response to infection or vaccinations which defend against viruses. The presence of them in the blood generally means someone has either partial or total immunity against catching a disease again.  

    But the figures could easily be an under-estimate because antibody levels fade over time and some people won't ever develop any. Scientists believe most people have high levels of antibodies for six months after an infection but to what extend they fade after then remains a mystery because there has not been a long enough time to follow up.  

    The true size of the pandemic is a mystery because millions of infected people were not tested during the height of the crisis last spring. If the ONS results are accurate, it would suggest Covid has an infection-fatality rate (IFR) of around 1.26 per cent, given there have been around 110,000 lab-confirmed deaths since the pandemic began. 

    No10's top scientific advisers believe the mortality rate is closer to the 0.5 per cent mark, suggesting that around 22million people — or almost 40 per cent of England's population — have already had the virus. 

    Meanwhile, there are also questions about whether previous infection from an older strain of Covid fully protects people from catching or falling ill with new variants of the virus.

    It appears as though former patients are immune to the Kent strain, based on vaccine studies which show the current crop of jabs work fine in neutralising that variant. But scientists are more concerned about strains that emerged in South Africa and Brazil, which are at least somewhat antibody resistant and make vaccines less potent.

    It's thought Covid survivors will still enjoy strong protection against those variants because antibodies are only one part of a larger immune response to Covid, which also involves crucial white blood cells.  However, there have been confirmed reports of a handful of health workers in Brazil becoming sick with the new variant there months after recovering from the original strain. 

    The ONS's survey, which collects regular blood samples from a group of people intended to represent England's population, suggested that signs of immunity are strongest in London, where antibodies were found in 21 per cent of people.

    The West Midlands saw the second highest past rate (18.8 per cent), followed by Yorkshire and the Humber (18.7 per cent). Six out of nine regions had levels higher than the England average, with only the South East, South West and East of England showing lower signs of immunity than the country as a whole.

    The figures are different to estimates made by Cambridge University experts, who also feed into SAGE. Last month the team estimated the attack rate — the proportion of how many people in any region that have had the virus — stood at 30 per cent in London and 26 per cent in the North East.

    It's thought that at least 60 per cent of a population need to have caught the virus for the group to reach herd immunity, which is when a disease runs out of room and can no longer spread because too many people are immune to it.     

    The ONS estimates how many people have had coronavirus already by checking the blood samples of adults over the age of 16 for antibodies. It omits people living in care homes and prisons, or other communal settings.  

    Health Secretary tells people in South African variant areas they MUST use up stocks in cupboards and freezers before leaving to go shopping to halt spread of coronavirus

    People in areas hit by outbreaks of the new South African variant of coronavirus should eat out of their freezer and store cupboards before considering leaving the house to shop for fresh food, Matt Hancock said today.

    The Heath Secretary repeated warnings that the highly transmissible strain was the main problem now facing Britain and required people to take a more strict attitude to staying at home.

    New Data from Oxford University showing its vaccine cuts transmission 'will help us all to get out of this pandemic', he said this morning as hopes were raised over the lifting of lockdown.

    But he also warned that new variants of coronavirus - which reduce the effectiveness of vaccines - could slow things down.

    Another 33 cases of the troublesome South African Covid variant have been spotted in Britain, health chiefs revealed last night amid growing fears over mutant strains that experts say could make vaccines less effective.

    Public Health England claimed 143 people have now been struck down with the variant since it was first discovered on British soil in December – including five in Scotland and nine in Wales. None have been found in Northern Ireland.

    The senior Government minister told BBC Breakfast: 'We're in a national lockdown so there is not a stronger law we can bring in place that says ''Really stay at home'' but the critical point is that everybody should be staying at home unless they have to.

    'If you are in one of those postcodes, it is absolutely imperative that you minimise all social contact outside of your house.

    'So this means, for instance, whereas the Government guidance to most of us is ''Do go to the shops if you need to'', in those areas, in the immediate term, we are saying ''If you have food in the house, please use that''. 

    'It is about a more stringent interpretation of the existing rules, trying to make sure that in those areas we do everything we possibly can to end all transmissions so we can get this new variant right under control.

    'There are only a handful of cases, so we have the opportunity to really stamp on it now.'  

    The data — which comes following the rapid spread of Covid over the past two months — may have been muddied by the fact millions of people have had a vaccine and will now show the same sign of immunity.

    Outside of England, an estimated one in nine people in Wales had been infected by mid-January, up from one in 14 in December.

    For Scotland, the estimate was one in 10, up from one in 13, and for Northern Ireland it was one in 11, up from one in 14. 

    It comes as another 33 cases of the troublesome South African Covid variant have been spotted in Britain, health chiefs revealed amid growing fears over mutant strains that experts say could make vaccines less effective.

    Public Health England claimed 143 people have now been struck down with the variant since it was first discovered on British soil in December – including five in Scotland and nine in Wales. None have been found in Northern Ireland.

    In yet another potential twist to the UK’s coronavirus crisis, officials also announced they have found 11 cases of the Kent coronavirus variant which carries an extra mutation in Bristol.

    And 32 people in Liverpool have been struck down with the original strain of the virus that has the same mutation – scientifically known as E484K. MailOnline understands the cases were spotted three weeks ago.

    Matt Hancock announced both discoveries in the House of Commons yesterday, revealing that a new door-to-door testing blitz was being rushed to both cities in a last-ditch attempt to stop the mutations spreading further.

    The E484K mutation – also found in the South African and Brazilian variants – appears to boost the virus’s ability to avoid the immune system, raising the risk of reinfections or the current crop of vaccines being less effective.

    It has appeared separately in cases of both the Kent variant and on the original version of the virus. Neither are yet being described as new variants but represent physical differences to the virus that could change how it behaves.

    No10 yesterday launched a mass-testing drive to swab 80,000 people in eight areas of England where cases of the South African variant were discovered in people who hadn’t been to the country. Health chiefs have yet to reveal exactly where in Bristol and Liverpool the scheme is being expanded to — but tens of thousands of people are likely to be targeted.

    Meanwhile, Downing Street has delivered a tough message that people should only be leaving home in the affected areas if it is unavoidable — suggesting that means using tinned food at home if possible rather than going to the shops.

    Mr Hancock signalled that the tactic is being expanded further in a statement to the Commons. He said: ‘In all these areas it is imperative that people must stay at home and only leave home where it is absolutely essential.'

    Despite the frantic bid to try and stop the mutated variants spreading in Britain, scientists have warned the cases identified so far are likely just the 'tip of the iceberg'. 

    Mr Hancock said: 'In those areas where this [South African] variant has been found – parts of Broxbourne, London, Maidstone and Southport, Walsall and Woking – we're putting in extra testing and sequencing every positive test.

    'Working with local authorities we're going door to door to test everyone in those areas and mobile testing units will be deployed offering PCR tests to people who have to leave their home for work or other essential reasons.

    'We have also seen 11 cases of mutations of concern in Bristol and 32 in Liverpool, and are taking the same approach. In all these areas it is imperative that people must stay at home and only leave home where it is absolutely essential.'

    People will not be told what variant they are carrying because this cannot be seen in a routine test, but the plan intends to find positive cases among people without symptoms in a bid to isolate them before they can infect others.

    The surge testing is now taking place at a variety of locations in England amid concerns about the mutant strains

    The surge testing is now taking place at a variety of locations in England amid concerns about the mutant strains 

    In a desperate attempt to keep track of the South African variant that experts fear could effect the current crop of vaccines, health officials are carrying out swabs in Woking in Surrey, Walsall in the West Midlands, as well as parts of London, Kent, Hertfordshire and Lancashire

    In a desperate attempt to keep track of the South African variant that experts fear could effect the current crop of vaccines, health officials are carrying out swabs in Woking in Surrey, Walsall in the West Midlands, as well as parts of London, Kent, Hertfordshire and Lancashire

    Mr Hancock suggested the testing could be extended to neighbouring postcodes when he was pushed in the Commons by Labour's Jonathan Ashworth.

    'We absolutely do that where it is epidemiologically sensible,' he said.

    Oxford and AstraZeneca will make a new Covid vaccine by AUTUMN to tackle mutated variants as coronavirus keeps evolving to escape the immune system

    Oxford University and AstraZeneca plan to have a new Covid vaccine ready by the autumn to tackle new variants of the coronavirus, they confirmed today.

    Growing evidence suggests that a mutation first found in the South African variant of the virus, and now cropping up elsewhere, can reduce how well current vaccines work because it changes the shape of the spike protein that the jabs target.

    And to overcome this, jab manufacturers say they are already working on updating their vaccines because they need to be extremely specific to offer the best form of protection.

    The Oxford/AstraZeneca team, makers of one of the world's most advanced vaccines so far, say they will have their adapted version ready and manufactured before the end of 2021.

    Oxford's Professor Andrew Pollard, who is leading studies of the jab, said it would be a 'short process' compared to making the original vaccine from scratch. 

    The update could be used either as a booster for people who have already had a different vaccine or it could be used on its own for those who are still unvaccinated.

    AstraZeneca's executive vice-president, Sir Mene Pangalos, said today: 'We're very much aiming to have something ready by the autumn this year.'

    The announcement comes after the team got a huge boost to their jab development from a study published last night that suggested it can cut transmission by up to two thirds and a single dose can prevent 76 per cent of severe illnesses for three months, with that rising to 82 per cent after the second dose. 

    In another ray of hope from Oxford's research, Dr Andrew Pollard — one of the lead Oxford researchers — said he is confident the current jabs will still prevent severe Covid in people who get infected with mutated variants of the virus. 

    He admitted the South African strain 'will have a big impact on the immune response from all the vaccines', suggesting the jab may not be as effective in curbing spread. But he says it is possible that it will morph to become like other coronaviruses that just cause a common cold or 'mild' infections.  

    'So, for instance, if the case is found on the border of a postcode, obviously we go across that border and we also investigate linked premises, for instance if somebody had a child at a school or is going to work in a particular workplace.'

    However, experts are sceptical about the testing scheme and say there are far more than 11 people infected with the strain already and that testing will slow it down, at best.

    Public Health England has discovered the cases through random spot-checks on the swabs that people testing positive have submitted through the official testing scheme. This means that only a small proportion of the cases are sampled and, if they can be picked up randomly, it is likely there are large numbers of them.

    Professor Andrew Hayward, an infectious disease expert at University College London and a member of SAGE, said that the 11 cases are the 'tip of the iceberg'. He told Sky News: 'We sequence between five and 10 per cent of cases so you can immediately tell from that that we have a big under-estimation of the number of cases.'

    And Professor Calum Semple, a researcher at the University of Liverpool and also a member of SAGE, said on BBC Radio 4: 'There is probably a few more cases out there than we even know about'. 

    Meanwhile Britain hit the major milestone of vaccinating 10million people against coronavirus but critics have demanded No10 gets a grip on the 'lackadaisical approach' to dishing out jabs on Sundays.

    With the country jabbing an average 400,000 people every day and with a week-and-a-half to go, the UK is well on track to achieving its goal of giving the first vaccine dose to the 14million most vulnerable Brits by mid-February.

    But despite the inoculation drive being an undoubted success, Britain is administering more vaccines per person than any other country except Israel, a trend has emerged in the figures showing a sharp drop-off in uptake on Sundays. 

    For example last Sunday there were 46 per cent fewer jabs administered compared to the day before — dropping from almost 600,000 to 320,000. The fall was even more pronounced two Sundays ago, on January 24, when half as many jabs were done compared to the Saturday.

    Several GPs, who asked not to be named, told MailOnline that a large number of practices shut on Sundays and do not offer appointments – despite No10 insisting the immunisation drive is 24/7 operation. It echoed claims made by Scotland's national clinical director yesterday who said the closure of surgeries on Sundays was hampering the vaccine rollout North of the Border. 

    Economists from the Institute for Economic Affairs told MailOnline that there is 'no incentive' for family doctors, who've been juggling the vaccine rollout and battling Covid on the frontlines of the second wave, to work seven days a week. It suggested GPs be offered commission on every jab done on a weekend.

    Health Secretary Matt Hancock today blamed 'lumpy supply' for the Sunday blips in Britain's coronavirus vaccine rollout and revealed plans to administer jabs through the night were going to be scrapped.  

    Asked about the fluctuations during a round of interviews this morning, Mr Hancock claimed the issue was being caused by patchy deliveries of supplies. He told LBC Radio: 'The answer is absolutely about supply... The supply is lumpy and as soon as a big shipment comes in we deliver it to the front line and they get it out as fast as we can.'  

    The Adam Smith think-tank told MailOnline the blips were a 'worrying sign of lost priorities'. Deputy director Matt Kilcoyne added: 'We need to make sure that we are firing on all cylinders at every single point, every single day. This is the most important issue in politics right now and the fact that we are failing to ramp up right across the week is a worrying sign of lost priorities of everybody who is involved in the pandemic.' 

    Mr Hancock also suggested No10 was purposefully masking data on its vaccine supplies, adding: 'We don't publish the supply figures and the reason we don't is that they move around.' 

    Liberal Democrat MP Layla Moran, who chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Coronavirus, slammed Mr Hancock for hiding the figures. 'We need transparency from the Government about vaccine supply and how that is affecting the rate at which people can get their jabs,' she told MailOnline.

    'It's vital that we take advantage of every hour of every day to vaccinate as many people as possible, and any issues with vaccinations on Sundays must be explored and fixed by the Government.'

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