The coronavirus R rate in Britain has risen to between 1.1 and 1.3 and it is at least one or higher in every region of England except the North East and North West.
R is a number used to show how many people each person who catches the coronavirus infects before they recover. It must be at one or lower to make sure the outbreak is shrinking.
This week marks the third week in a row that the figure has risen since the national lockdown brought it down to 1.0 in November.
SAGE, which is headed up by chief scientist Sir Patrick Vallance, said: ‘All NHS England regions have R estimates that are above or span 1, suggesting the epidemic is growing in much of the country, with London, the South East, and the East of England clearly above 1.’
The estimates, which take into account data up to December 18 so don’t include any effects of the Tier Four rules in London and the South East, come as a new, more infectious strain of the coronavirus is fast becoming dominant in the South.
The variant, now known as B.1.1.7, has spread like wildfire across the capital and home counties and is thought to be on track to become the main version of coronavirus circulating in the UK.
Professor Neil Ferguson, a prolific epidemiologist and Government adviser dubbed ‘Professor Lockdown’, today said it appeared to have triggered ‘explosive outbreaks’ in schools in London.
Concerns about the fast-spreading version of the virus, and surging infection rates – yesterday saw the most cases announced of any day in the epidemic so far – are expected to leave swathes of the country in Tier Four total lockdown rules from Boxing Day, with toughers measures potentially on the cards for Surrey, Essex, Sussex, Oxfordshire, Suffolk and Hampshire.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock will hold a press conference this afternoon after ministers and scientists met this morning to discuss whether changes need to be made to the tiering system before the planned December 30 review.
West Sussex and the parts of East Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire not already in the top tier could be included as early as Boxing Day.
Also under consideration are Burnley in Lancashire, where the infection rate currently sits at 438 per 100,000 people, and Lincoln and Boston in Lincolnshire, which both have rates in excess of 400.
By contrast, Gosport in Hampshire, which is already under Tier 4 measures, has 159 cases per 100,000 and the Chiltern area of Buckinghamshire has 202.
The R rate figure is highest in the East of England and in London, with a possible value of between 1.2 and 1.5. This means that every 10 people infected will infect between 12 and 15 further people.
The R value in England as a whole is 1.1 to 1.4, and it’s lowest in the North East and Yorkshire, and in the North West, where it is between 0.9 and 1.1.
There have been ‘explosive’ coronavirus outbreaks in London’s schools in recent weeks, ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson revealed today
The northern regions are the only places where SAGE thinks the R might be lower than one and that the outbreaks there might be shrinking.
In the South West, which has been one of the least affected parts of the country throughout the year, it is thought to be between 1.0 and 1.2.
HOW HAS THE R RATE CHANGED FROM LAST WEEK?
NE and Yorks
1.1 – 1.2
1.1 – 1.4
1.2 – 1.5
1.2 – 1.5
1.0 – 1.2
0.9 – 1.1
0.9 – 1.1
1.2 – 1.4
1.0 – 1.2
0.9 – 1.0
1.1 – 1.3
1.2 – 1.4
1.1 – 1.3
1.0 – 1.2
0.9 – 1.1
0.9 – 1.1
1.1 – 1.3
0.9 – 1.2
SAGE’s R estimate lags by around two to three weeks due to the way it collects data on Covid deaths and hospitalisation rates, so its estimates today do not reflect the current picture of the UK’s epidemic.
Infection rates have started to double every week now, which means the true R rate could be worse than today’s report says.
Last night the Department of Health revealed another 36,804 people caught the virus in the 24 hours to Tuesday, up from the 18,405 the week before.
It comes as Professor Ferguson warned there have been ‘explosive’ coronavirus outbreaks in schools in London and the South East in recent weeks, amid fears the mutant strain of the virus plaguing the capital and the commuter belt makes children more susceptible to Covid-19 infection.
Professor Ferguson – who quit SAGE after he was caught breaking social distancing rules to meet his married lover during Britain’s first lockdown – said there had been ‘anecdotal reports’ of ‘more explosive’ clusters in schools since November.
The Imperial College London epidemiologist, who still sits on the SAGE sub-groups NERVTAG and SPI-M, said it added to a growing body of data showing the new variant is making up an unusually large proportion of cases in children.
Children were very unlikely to get infected by previous strains of Covid – which was unusual because lots of viral infections like flu transmit more easily in youngsters –and it was extremely rare for someone under the age of 16 to develop symptoms
However, Professor Ferguson said the changes in the new variant may make children ‘more like adults’ in terms of how easy it is for the virus to infect and spread between them.
The scientist also warned the strain – believed to be up to 70 per cent more infectious than normal Covid – will already be circulating ‘in the vast majority, if not all’ European countries, despite only a handful confirming cases.
Experts say the variant was only spotted thanks to Britain’s world-leading genetic sequencing capabilities and would have likely been missed if it emerged in other nations.
The UK was made a continental pariah this week as EU countries shut their borders to British travellers in a bid to contain the spread of the variant.
Professor Ferguson told the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee today: ‘There are anecdotal reports that the last few weeks have seen more explosive school outbreaks in London and the South East of England, but they are just anecdotes at the moment.
But he added: ‘You see a statistically significant increased proportion of cases in under-15-year-olds for the variant compared to the non variant.
‘Beyond that we know nothing. There could be a number of hypotheses why that might be the case.
‘One of them is that maybe… children are more susceptible to this variant.
‘For previous strains of this virus we know children were less likely to get infected and certainly less likely to get symptoms than adults – which is unusual for a respiratory virus.
‘One possibility is this virus has changed in some way which doesn’t particularly target children, just makes children more like adults a little bit. Either in terms of symptoms or viral replication or transmission, or both.
‘But again this is very early days. We have very little direct biological, never mind experimental, evidence that that’s the case.
‘At the moment we have an observation that there’s a slight shift in the age distribution which would be consistent with any of those hypotheses.
‘But I would emphasise – while it is a significant shift, it’s not a huge shift. It’s relatively small.’
Professor Neil Ferguson told MPS the new strain of is ‘everywhere now’ in the UK, but said he anticipated the impact of new Tier 4 restrictions and revised strict measures over Christmas elsewhere would have a beneficial impact on the UK’s crisis.
He said: ‘Schools are now shut, we are in a near-lockdown situation across the country. Contact rates are lower over Christmas.
‘I expect, though I hesitate to make any sort of predictions, we will see a flattening of the curve in the next two weeks. We will see at least a slowing of growth.
‘The critical question is what happens in January and the extent we want to make public health measures more uniform across the country if the new variant is everywhere.’
Professor Ferguson first suggested the new strain was more infectious to children than the older version on Tuesday.
But members of COVID-19 Genomics UK (COG-UK) today said they are ‘not familiar’ with any data to suggest this might be the case.
COG-UK has examined the genetics of more than 160,000 cases of coronavirus in the UK and is constantly watching how the virus evolves to see whether any of the mutations are important, as this one named VUI-202012/1 has become.
They said there had not yet been enough cases of the new variant recorded and that more data is needed to make any comments on how it affects specific groups.
Professor Ferguson claims the number of cases of the new variant in under-15s is significantly higher than other strains, although he has admitted there is not enough evidence yet to prove the theory.
Scientists have suggested that children might be more susceptible to the new variant of the virus because it is better able to latch onto people’s ACE-2 receptors that the virus uses to get into the body.
It is not clear whether this is an effect specific to children, or just a by-product of the fact that this variant may be more infectious for people of all ages.
Fears that it could spread more readily between children are cause for concern because social distancing efforts are harder to enforce on young people.
Schools could face closure in the new year if the variant can’t be brought under control and is being discovered in children.
Public Health England said it was doing more research to work out how the variant affects children.
Meanwhile, Professor Ferguson told the Commons committee today that it was likely that the strain was already circulating in every European country.
He said the fact Denmark, which also has a robust genomics sequencing programme, had picked up on 10 cases signalled that other more populous EU countries likely already had cases that were being missed.
He added: ‘It would suggest, almost certainly in my view, that this virus [strain] has been introduced to the great majority, if not all, of European countries at the current time.’
There is still not much known about the new variant of the virus, which was brought to public attention for the first time last week.
Cases of it appeared to have exploded in the UK in mid-November and it is now on course to become the country’s dominant strain.
Experts say examples of it have been found in all corners of England, as well as in Scotland and Wales, and that it is quickly replacing other versions of the virus.
This is thought to be because it has evolved to be more catching – Boris Johnson claimed it may be up to 70 per cent more infectious in a dramatic press conference at the weekend – although it may still be because it was in the right place at the right time.
Experts say it will be a couple more weeks before enough data has emerged to make any conclusions about the effects of the new variant of the virus.
Because most of the people infected with it caught the virus in November, they are not yet out of the time frame of possible severe Covid-19 or death.
It usually takes around four weeks for someone to either completely recover or die after they’ve caught the virus, COG said.