Covid UK: Patrick Vallance says death rate won’t ‘reduce quickly’

Britain is in for a ‘pretty grim period’ for Covid deaths which won’t fall for ‘some weeks’, the Government’s top scientist warned today – after the UK recorded its deadliest day yet with 1,564 confirmed fatalities. 

Department of Health figures show the daily laboratory-confirmed death toll has risen 50 per cent week-on-week, with data suggesting the total number of coronavirus victims — both suspected and confirmed — has now passed the 100,000 mark.   

The Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance today stressed Britain is in a ‘period of high death numbers’ which will not ‘come down quickly’ following Wednesday’s grim milestone for fatalities.

Speaking to ITV’s Peston programme, he said: ‘The daily numbers jump around a bit but I think we are in a position now – when you look at the number of infections we’ve had over the past few weeks and how this is likely to continue, so I don’t think they’re going to drop very quickly – that I’m afraid we’re in a period of high death numbers that’s going to carry on for some weeks.

‘It’s not going to come down quickly even if the measures that are in place now start to reduce the infection numbers. So we’re in for a pretty grim period, I’m afraid.’ 

The three deadliest days of Britain’s Covid crisis have all been recorded in 2021, with today’s figure topping the 1,325 last Friday. But deaths always lag weeks behind cases, meaning fatality counts won’t begin to drop until at least a fortnight after infections fall.  

Public Health England bosses said there had now been ‘more deaths in the second wave than the first’.

But Government statistics also suggest the UK’s outbreak is finally starting to slow. Another 47,525 positive tests were declared today, down 23.7 per cent on last Wednesday’s toll of 62,322. It is the fourth day in a row that infections have dropped week-on-week. 

Sir Patrick did not rule out the need for tougher restrictions to help bring infection rates down further across the UK, but said current rules are clearly having some impact on the numbers.

He explained: ‘I think we follow these [rules], the evidence we have so far is this is beginning to work, holding it flat, beginning to potentially push it down. We need to monitor it and you know it may be that we need more on top of this at some point, I’m absolutely not ruling that out.

‘It may be that we need more on top of this, and I think those obviously are decisions that ministers would need to make. But I think at the moment the evidence is that this is having an effect.’  

The Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance (pictured) today said Britain is in a ‘period of high death numbers’ which will not ‘reduce quickly’ following Wednesday’s grim milestone for fatalities

On another brutal day for the UK as Covid runs rampant:

Deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van-Tam has played down the idea of a three-metre social distancing rule, saying the distance would probably not make a difference as the new variant does not make people cough harder; Matt Hancock has admitted some hospital patients might be taken to hotels amid pressure on the NHS;Ministers are finally going ahead with round-the-clock coronavirus vaccinations after bowing to immense pressure to speed up the scheme; Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has said he was ‘disgusted’ when footballer Marcus Rashford exposed the state of the government’s free school meal parcels for poorer children;   Diplomatic tensions with China have escalated again after the PM blamed its ‘demented’ traditional medicine for the pandemic, and the UK announced sanctions over human rights abuses; New figures showed more than half of virus patients in intensive care are in their 50s or 60s;Major supermarkets united in formally banning customers without face masks.

Earlier on Wednesday Boris Johnson also refused to rule out tightening the third lockdown further — but he hailed ‘early’ signs that the brutal restrictions are bringing coronavirus under control.  

The Prime Minister insisted the measures in England were being kept ‘under constant review’ as Keir Starmer demanded to know why they were looser than last spring despite cases being higher. Mr Johnson warned that the NHS was at ‘substantial risk’ of being swamped, and the ‘only way’ of protecting it was to follow the ‘current rules’. 

But despite the latest death toll, Mr Johnson sounded a notably optimistic tone about the emerging impact of the restrictions. He said the country was ‘now starting to see the beginnings of some signs’ that the crackdown was having an effect in parts of the country, while stressing it was ‘early days’ and urged people to ‘keep their discipline’.       

MailOnline analysis suggests the outbreak in England may have started slowing before the blanket lockdown on January 4, with infection numbers peaking in the worst-hit regions at the start of the year. The tide appears to have turned in parts of the country experiencing the worst outbreaks – London, the South East and the East of England – in the first week of 2021, with cases coming down since then. 

Coronavirus hospital admissions have also started to fall in London and the South East, although the numbers of patients are still rising on wards after surging above the peaks recorded in the first wave.

The latest figures bolster claims that Tier 4 – which kept schools open – thwarted the spread of the super-infectious mutant strain of the virus. But it appears the measure did not drive down infections fast enough for ministers, who instead opted for further curbs to daily life.

Boris JohnsonKeir Starmer

Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer clashed bitterly over the handling of the coronavirus crisis at PMQs in the Commons today

It comes as figures show the second wave of the pandemic may have peaked as lockdown was brought in, with the infection rate dipping for most areas since January 5

It comes as figures show the second wave of the pandemic may have peaked as lockdown was brought in, with the infection rate dipping for most areas since January 5

From Saturday people picking up takeaway meals will be barred from entering eateries, instead having to wait outside, she told the Scottish Parliament.

From Saturday people picking up takeaway meals will be barred from entering eateries, instead having to wait outside, she told the Scottish Parliament.

Did England pass its peak BEFORE lockdown? Covid outbreaks started to slow at start of 2021 in Kent and other Tier 4 areas 

England’s coronavirus outbreak could have started to slow down before the national lockdown started on January 4, data suggest as infection numbers appeared to peak in the worst-hit regions at the start of the year.

The tide appears to have turned in parts of the country experiencing the worst outbreaks – London, the South East and the East of England – in the first week of 2021, with cases coming down since then.

Millions of people living in those areas were forced into gruelling Tier 4 restrictions the weekend before Christmas, ordered to stay at home for two weeks to try and control the new variant before the national lockdown started. 

Infection rates fell in most parts of the country at the start of January, suggesting local lockdown rules in place in December were having an effect but it wasn’t fast enough to satisfy ministers, who called a drastic national shutdown just days into the new year. 

National figures paint a similar picture, with the 45,533 new positive tests announced today marking a 25 per cent fall on this time last week and representing the third day in a row that the country’s infection rate has come down.

It’s still too soon for the effects of national lockdown to show up reliably in data but cases starting to come down in some of the worst-affected places suggests that Tier 4 rules were working before they were abandoned. 

Data from Kent, at the heart of the most recent outbreak, showed that cases were still fluctuating even in Tier 4,  coming down in all of the 13 local authorities put into Tier 4 before Christmas, then spiking again in January before declining again around the time when lockdown was announced.

In Liverpool, meanwhile, which was the only part of the country to be downgraded from Tier 3 to Tier 2 in December after officials claimed a mass-testing programme had got the city’s outbreak under control, cases skyrocketed at the end of the year and are still rising, although the increase has slowed in lockdown.

The PM was grilled at PMQs and then by the cross-party Liaison Committee today as he faced another barrage of demands for the national clampdown to be tightened even further – something that Nicola Sturgeon has announced is happening in Scotland.

Speaking to MPs this afternoon, the Prime Minister said he was ‘concerned’ about the new Brazilian variant of the virus.

‘We already have tough measures, as you know, to stop from new infections come from abroad. We are taking steps to do that in response to the Brazilian variation.’

It is still yet to be identified in the UK, and there is no evidence that it causes a more severe infection than other strains – although there are fears it may be as transmissible as the Kent strain.

It is normal for viruses to mutate and early signs don’t suggest that any of the new variants of coronavirus are more deadly than others, but in some places it is evolving to be able to spread faster.

If the virus is faster spreading it will inevitably lead to more cases which will in turn lead to a higher death count, even if the strain itself isn’t more dangerous.

During the Committee, the Prime Minister also warned parents he still wasn’t sure whether schools would be allowed to re-open after the February half-term.

When asked if they would re-open next month, he said: ‘The priority is obviously to get schools open as soon as possible, whether we can do that after the half term depends on a number of things. The success of the vaccination process, depends on us not finding out the South African or Brazilian variants are vaccine resistant.

‘We have no evidence that they are, but that’s got to go well. But the crucial thing is the lockdown measures have to go well. What we are seeing today is some early signs of progress in containing the virus, but it is far, far too early to say if we can see any relaxation in February.’ 

Downing Street is considering options ranging from limiting takeaways and click and collect, to closing more workplaces and nurseries and banning people from exercising with friends. Matt Hancock said this morning that the ‘next few days’ would be key to understanding whether the lockdown is working, with the PM set to wait until the weekend to make a final decision on new measures.

However, scientists have cautioned that critical capacity in the NHS will still be under enormous strain into March due to the lag between infection and people getting ill, with up to 250,000 people a day said to be catching the virus.   

London Councils and Mayor Sadiq Khan today appealed for Mr Johnson to bring in new measures such as closing places of worship immediately, or risk putting an ‘unsustainable strain’ on services.

Mr Khan lamented a ‘heartbreaking’ coronavirus milestone as it was confirmed more than 10,000 Londoners have fallen victim to the virus.

The latest data from Public Health England shows a total of 10,353 people in London have died within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test. 

A further 7,606 people across the capital are currently in hospital with the disease – 35 per cent higher than the busiest day of the pandemic in the spring.     

Ms Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament this afternoon that from Saturday she is banning drinking outdoors and non-essential click-and-collect, as well as going inside eateries to pick up a takeaway. 

Earlier, Mr Hancock defied mounting Tory calls to guarantee that the draconian restrictions will be eased from March 8 – around three weeks after the government is due to have vaccinated the 14million most vulnerable.

But in a glimmer of hope data from the Department of Health suggests England’s outbreak may have started to slow down before the national lockdown started on January 4, as infection numbers appeared to peak in the worst-hit regions at the start of the year.

Millions living in London, the South East and East of England were forced into gruelling Tier 4 restrictions the weekend before Christmas, scuppering festive plans for millions as ministers tried to get a grip on the new variant of the virus.

And in the first week of January the region’s infection rates began to drop, suggesting the highest level of measures may have been enough to thwart the spread of the super-infectious mutant strain.

It can take up to two weeks for someone who is infected with the virus to start showing symptoms, get a test and then receive a positive result, meaning there is a lag before the impact of restrictions shows up in the data.

In another positive sign the second wave may be waning, data also shows hospital admissions in London and the East of England peaked in the days after lockdown was imposed.

Department of Health statistics appear to show London’s hit their peak on January 6 – on day two of the shutdown – when the seven-day average stood at 864. It dropped to 845 the following day. In the South East, hospitalisations also peaked on January 6 when they reached 662.

And in the East of England – which was plunged into the highest bracket of restrictions at the same time – they had started to level off by January 4.

It can take weeks for someone infected with the virus to suffer symptoms severe enough to be admitted to hospital, meaning there is a delay between a drop in cases and hospitalisations. But the early downturn adds to claims that Tier 4 – which kept schools open – was enough to control the mutant variant.

Security checking people are wearing masks at a supermarket in Peckham, South East London this morning. Some people have exemptions from the mask rule

Security checking people are wearing masks at a supermarket in Peckham, South East London this morning. Some people have exemptions from the mask rule

The shopper angrily told the guard in Morrisons today that he did not have to wear because he had a medical condition

The shopper angrily told the guard in Morrisons today that he did not have to wear because he had a medical condition

Tube services on the Jubilee Line were still busy in London this morning despite the brutal lockdown restrictions in force

Tube services on the Jubilee Line were still busy in London this morning despite the brutal lockdown restrictions in force 

Sturgeon gazumps PM again by tightening lockdown in Scotland  

Nicola Sturgeon banned Scots from drinking outside and making non-essential click-and-collect orders today as she tightened Scotland’s lockdown still further. 

From Saturday people picking up takeaway meals will be barred from entering eateries, instead having to wait outside, she told the Scottish Parliament.

And new laws will be brought in to put a legal requirement on businesses to force them to allow staff to work from home if they can do so. 

Addressing MSPs at Holyrood she said new lockdown restrictions appear to be having an effect, with the rise in new daily cases seen around the turn of the year slowing down.

However, she said there is ‘no room for complacency’, adding: ‘It is too soon to be entirely confident that the situation is stabilising.

‘Even if it is, this will only be because of lockdown – it is not, unfortunately, an indication that it is safe to ease it yet in any way.’

Pressure on the NHS, Ms Sturgeon said, was likely to continue ‘for some time’ as she urged people to continue to adhere to the new regulations.

Ms Sturgeon’s decision is likely to pile the pressure on Boris Johnson who is also thought to be considering tightening the rules in England. 

Only retailers selling essentials, such as clothing, baby equipment and books, will be able to offer collection services in Scotland from this weekend.

Even as they slowed across the capital and in regions first plunged into the toughest bracket, however, the number of patients in hospital continued to rise because the number of new cases needing treatment each day is still high.

And hospital admissions for patients suffering from the virus are also continuing to rise in the South West, North West, North East and Midlands.

Despite the drops, hospital admissions remain above the highest levels seen during the darkest days of the first wave and in the final month of last year – in a warning sign health care staff could yet be overwhelmed. 

In London they stood at 150 at the start of December before soaring upwards, and never went above 750 in April. For the South East, they stood at 165 in December, and never moved above 323 in the first wave. 

It’s still too soon for the effects of national lockdown to show up reliably in data but cases starting to come down in some of the worst-affected places suggests that Tier 4 rules were working before they were abandoned.  

Some Government scientists fear, however, the true case rate is still running at more than 250,000 a day. They have warned the Prime Minister that, even with the rollout of the vaccine, the death rate may not start to fall until the middle of next month.

Despite the more positive news on infections, Sir Keir goaded Mr Johnson that he was already too late toughening the rules.  

‘The next big decision is obvious, the current restrictions are not strong enough to control the virus,’ he said.

‘Can the Prime Minister tell us when infection rates are much higher than in March, when hospital admissions are much higher than last March, when death rates are much higher than last March, why on earth are restrictions weaker than last March?’

Mr Johnson responded: ‘We keep things under constant review and we will continue to do so.

‘And certainly if there is any need to toughen up restrictions, which I don’t rule out, we will of course come to this House.’

But he also highlighted the ‘serious damage that is done by lockdowns’. 

‘The lockdown measures we have in place combined with tier four measures that we were using are starting to show signs of some effect and we must take account of that too,’ Mr Johnson said. 

Sir Keir took the premier to task for being ‘slow to act’ when infection rates began to surge in December.

‘The last PMQs was on December 16,’ the Labour leader said. ‘The Prime Minister told us then that we were seeing, in his words, a significant reduction in the virus. He told us then that there was no need for endless lockdowns and no need to change the rules about Christmas mixing.

‘Since then, since that last PMQs, 17,000 people have died of Covid, 60,000 people have been admitted to hospital and there has been over a million new cases. How did the Prime Minister get it so wrong and why was he so slow to act?’

But a clearly infuriated Mr Johnson shot back: ‘Of course, what (Sir Keir) fails to point out is that on December 18, two days later, the Government was informed of the spread of the new variant and the fact that it spreads roughly 50-70 per cent faster than the old variant, and that is why it is indeed correct to say that the situation today is very troubling indeed.’

He added: ‘This is the toughest of times, but we can see the way forward.’

Mr Johnson also sounded bullish about the vaccine rollout, accusing Sir Keir of failing to give the programme enough credit.

He said the UK was in a ‘comparatively favourable position’ compared to other countries. 

No 10 pins hopes on us following the rules… but keeps the big stick in reverse 

HOW RULES MAY CHANGE 

End exercise meetings

Ministers are considering removing the exemption that allows two people to meet outdoors to exercise.

The exemption, which did not exist in the original lockdown, was included as a lifeline for the lonely. But scenes of crowded parks have led to concerns it is being abused.

Increase mask wearing

Health officials are examining plans to make masks mandatory in crowded outdoor areas such as supermarket queues and markets. Chief medical officer Chris Whitty said this week that masks were not necessary in most outdoor settings but there ‘might be some logic’ to wearing them in crowded spaces.

Close more businesses

Some ministers are pushing for the closure of more businesses, such as estate agents and click and collect retail operations – many of which were shut in the first lockdown. Supporters of the move say it would help limit the spread of the virus and reduce the reasons for people to go out. No10 has not ruled it out.

3m social distancing

Some Government scientists are pushing for the two-metre social distancing rule to be extended to three, but officials say the idea is on the back-burner for now.

Shut churches and nurseries

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has called for places of worship to close while Labour wants nurseries shut. But ministers insist neither move is being considered for now.

No10 sources have indicated that ministers were ready to tighten the lockdown further unless the situation improves by the weekend. 

‘The compliance data is mixed,’ an insider said. ‘We should have better data by the weekend and at that point we will have to decide whether we need to go further.’

Another source told MailOnline that Ms Sturgeon was acting because of ‘escalating’ cases in Scotland, albeit from a lower level. 

Extra measures being considered in England include removing the exemption that allows two people to meet outdoors to exercise.

Some ministers have been pushing for more businesses to be closed, including estate agents, outdoor markets and click-and-collect retail. 

Scientists are also arguing for the two-metre social distancing rule to be increased to three metres.

SAGE member Prof Andrew Hayward told Sky News that ramping up controls now could be the only way of ensuring the lockdown can end in March.

‘We could see faster decreased in those numbers of hospitalisations and deaths if we were to tighten those lockdown measures, and particularly focus on whether all of the people who are going into work really need to be going into work,’ he said. 

After a major incident was declared in the capital last Friday due to rising Covid-19 cases, Mr Khan and London Councils chair Georgia Gould have written to Mr Johnson demanding tougher measures.

Aside from the closure of places of worship, they have called for the PM to make mask-wearing mandatory outside the home – including in supermarket queues, on high streets and in other possibly crowded outdoor settings.

Also among four major demands is for the Government to provide greater financial support for Londoners who need to self-isolate and are unable to work, backed by improved asymptomatic testing for key workers.

The two leaders also called for the the rollout of vaccines across London to be accelerated, and for the provision of daily vaccination data by borough and ethnicity.

‘We recognise how difficult these decisions are and how they will impose further tough restrictions on Londoners,’ the letter says. 

‘With new levels of infection remaining high we are left with little choice but to ask that you implement them.’

Mr Khan and Ms Gould said places of worship were ‘crucially important for communities’ and that ‘we wouldn’t be making this request if the situation wasn’t very serious’.

The letter also urges four other temporary measures: an urgent review of what constitutes essential and non-essential retail, stricter guidance on how retailers can prevent unsafe queues and crowding, prohibiting click and collect services at non-essential retail chains, and stronger guidance on size restrictions for weddings, funerals and similar gatherings.

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