England’s third Covid wave may have already peaked, more official data suggested today as a swathe of statistics pointed to a slowing epidemic.
The Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) weekly surveillance report estimated 1.1million people were infected with the virus at any time in the week to October 30 — the equivalent of one in 50. This was approximately the same as the previous seven-day spell, bringing an end to nearly three months of rising cases which began in August.
Experts say the levelling off suggests the latest wave of Covid triggered by the return of schoolchildren has ‘likely’ come to a natural peak, due to a combination of vaccine immunity and previous infection.
But the ONS data suggests the outbreak is still as big as it was at the peak of the second wave in January and the weekly total is the third highest ever recorded, even though deaths are just a fraction of levels seen during the darkest days of the crisis.
Covid cases were falling among under-16s and dipped slightly among 35 to 49-year-olds but remained static in all other age groups including the booster-eligible over-60s, according to the mass-testing survey.
Government advisers today said the R rate has fallen for the first time since millions of pupils returned to school in September. The UK Health Security Agency now estimates the rate stands at between 0.9 and 1.1 but caution that it reflects the situation three weeks ago, rather than now.
It comes after separate data from the UK’s largest symptom-tracking study yesterday reported a fall in cases for the first time in weeks, in another sign cases may have peaked. Professor Tim Spector, the epidemiologist behind the survey, said the country is probably over the ‘last great peak of Covid’ for the year, but encouraged mask-wearing and social distancing to be safe.
And Britain’s daily Covid cases fell again yesterday for the 11th time in 12 days, after a brief blip earlier this week. The Department of Health said there were 37,269 infections recorded, down 6.5 per cent from last Thursday.
Figures also revealed today that Britain is no longer the Covid capital of Europe, with Austria, Belgium and Ireland now all having higher infection rates.
The Office for National Statistics estimated that some 1.1million people in England had Covid at any point last week. This is the same as the previous seven-day spell, but the levelling off suggests the outbreak has peaked because fewer people infected with the virus are passing it on to others — either due to self-isolation or immunity from jabs or previous infection
The ONS estimated that cases are falling among under-16s, and there was a slight drop among those aged 35 to 49, but they remained static in all other age groups
Across England’s regions a downturn in infections was suggested in the East of England, North West, South East, East Midlands and London. This is likely linked to dropping infections among younger age groups over half-term
The experts behind the ZOE Covid Study — which is based on reports from around 750,000 weekly contributors and more than 40,000 swabs — calculated there were 88,592 daily symptomatic Covid cases across the UK, based on data from 42,359 positive PCR and lateral flow tests taken between October 16 and 30. Around a third of cases (26,928) are among double-jabbed Brits, up from 26,928 last week, the study found.
Covid infection rates fell in all but 10 per cent of areas in England during the half-term week, data from the UK Health and Security Agency’s weekly Flu and Covid Surveillance Report shows
Now Pfizer says it’s at-home Covid pill cuts risk of death by up to 90%…
Pfizer today claimed its at-home Covid pill cuts the risk of severe illness by nearly 90 per cent, potentially providing the UK with another weapon in its arsenal to combat the pandemic.
Its twice-a-day antiviral was shown in clinical trials to slash the risk of hospitalisation or deaths by 87 per cent in vulnerable and elderly patients.
The pharmaceutical giant stopped its study of the drug — known as Paxlovid — early due to the ‘overwhelming efficacy’.
Pfizer’s twice-a-day antiviral was shown in clinical trials to slash the risk of hospitalisation or deaths by 87 per cent in vulnerable and elderly patients. It found that 0.8 per cent of those given Pfizer’s drug within three days of symptom onset were hospitalised and none had died by 28 days after treatment. For comparison, the hospitalisation rate stood at 7 per cent for the patients given a placebo. There were also seven deaths in the placebo group
The findings appear to surpass those seen with Merck’s rival pill molnupiravir, which data showed halved the risk of death or hospitalisation.
Paxlovid can be taken at home and is a combination of an experimental drug with an older antiviral called ritonavir, already used to treat HIV/AIDS.
Pfizer described its findings as a ‘game-changer’ and now plans to apply for approval from American medical regulators in the coming days. The firm will likely also seek approval in the UK, where the Government has already purchased 250,000 courses.
It comes after Britain yesterday became the first country in the world to give Merck’s antiviral the green light, paving the way for it to be rolled out on the NHS within the next few weeks.
The ONS Covid survey randomly swabs 100,000 Britons every seven days — even if they have no symptoms of the virus — to estimate its prevalence in the country.
It is seen as the gold-standard surveillance project tracking the spread of the virus by ministers.
In Wales, infections plateaued last week after estimates suggested there were 72,700 cases on any given day last week — equivalent to one in 40 being infected. In the previous week it was 77,800.
In Scotland, the ONS suggested cases had fallen from 71,500 to 66,000 cases last week — equivalent to one in 80 having the virus.
But in Northern Ireland cases rose from 23,900 to 27,400 — with up to one in 65 now having the virus.
Dr Raghib Ali, an epidemiologist at Cambridge University, said the results were ‘broadly as expected’, bolstering claims that prevalence peaked in England in the final week of October.
He added that it also confirms infections in schoolchildren were peaking before half-term, saying it offers more evidence that the fall was genuine and not just down to less testing as some experts had speculated.
Professor Jim Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute at the University of Oxford, also claimed the data showed prevalence appears to have peaked. He added: ‘I would now expect all other things being equal for the prevalence to fall.
‘There are other encouraging results the prevalence in teens shows a trend downwards from very high levels. This age group had very alarming levels of infection and this was driving case numbers.
‘The combination of vaccine roll out to this age group and the high level of infection, will drive down the numbers of newly infected teens rapidly from this point.’
He added: ‘There is no doubt that this Christmas will be transformationally different than last.’
Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease specialist at the University of East Anglia, said the results provide some ‘reassurance that Covid infections in England may have indeed peaked’.
He added: ‘The report supports what has been seen in the daily case reports which have been falling for a couple of weeks now.
‘Because this report presents prevalence and people often remain positive for more than a week after becoming infected it will always look like data here are falling more slowly than seen in daily case reports which are incidence data.’
However, other scientists urged caution over the results.
Dr Simon Clarke, a cellular microbiologist at the University of Reading, said: ‘It is too early to know if this will be the peak of the latest wave of infections or just a temporary week to week reduction.
‘The slightly lower numbers overall are likely due to a reduction in cases among children, which may be an impact of the autumn half term school holiday, and the rising numbers of vaccinated teenagers.’
No10’s top scientists tracking the R rate — which measures the speed the outbreak is growing at — estimated that it had fallen below one in most regions of the country.
This suggests that fewer people are catching the virus than are currently infected with it.
Only London (1.0 to 1.2) and the South East (1.0 to 1.2) had rates above one, suggesting their outbreak is either static or is growing.
In the South West and East of England the R rate was 0.9 to 1.2. And in the Midlands, North East and North West it was estimated to be between 0.9 and 1.1.
Yesterday the ZOE Covid symptom study estimated there were 88,592 daily symptomatic Covid cases across the UK every day in the week to October 30. This was down five per cent on 92,953 from the previous week.
Similar to other studies, they also found infections were falling fastest among children, but levelling off in the other age groups.
Professor Spector said: ‘It’s great that we’re finally seeing cases start to come down, and hopefully we’re over the last great peak of Covid in 2021.’
But, in a warning, he added: ‘As the temperatures drop and winter comes we’re still seeing far too much Covid in the community leading to high long Covid and hospitalisation rates compared to other countries in Western Europe. With high rates of other viral respiratory illnesses too (although no flu yet), there is no room for complacency.’
Despite having no Covid restrictions in place nationwide, the UK has dropped to the fourth most-infectious country in Western Europe. Austria, Belgium and Ireland are recording up to 17 per cent more cases, despite having a mix of mandatory face masks, work from home guidance and Covid passports in place
Despite falling in the infection rate rankings, the UK still has the highest daily death rate. Yesterday, the UK recorded 2.5 Covid deaths per million people, compared to 1.6 in Austria, Belgium and Ireland. Deaths lag a few weeks behind case numbers, due to the time it takes someone to become seriously unwell with the virus after they get infected
The UK dropped to the fourth most-infectious country in Western Europe yesterday, with Austria, Denmark and Ireland all recording more cases. However, Austria is also carrying out the most Covid tests in Western Europe – around 37 tested per 1,000 people each day – while the UK is conducting around 12 daily testers per 1,000 people. This means Austria is picking up more cases than the UK, where a higher proportion will be slipping under the radar. But Belgium (six per 1,000 people) and Ireland (4 per 1,000 people) – which are also recording higher infection rates than the UK – are testing up to two-thirds less than the UK
The UK Health Security Agency — which took over the reigns from Public Health England — also published its weekly surveillance report yesterday.
It showed cases dropped in nine of ten areas of England last week, with the biggest downturn in cases in the South West (down 21 per cent), followed by the South East (16 per cent) and the East of England (13 per cent).
It came as official data today revealed Britain is no longer the Covid capital of Europe.
Cases in the UK spiked when schools went back in September, which led to the country being branded the centre of the continent’s outbreak by advocates of the Government’s ‘Plan B’ strategy.
But the latest statistics show Austria, Belgium and Ireland have now all overtaken Britain’s infection rate. This is despite them having a mix of tougher restrictions, including face masks, working from home, and jab passports.
Many scientists had argued Britain was recording a higher case, hospital and death rate from the virus because it was testing up to ten times more people than its neighbours.
Experts said the roll out of booster jabs and natural immunity built up from the back-to-school wave should see infections continue to slump over the coming weeks.