One in every 85 people in England is now infected with coronavirus, half of them have caught the new super-infectious strain and cases in London have trebled in two weeks, according to official statistics.
But Office for National Statistics (ONS) data shows the epidemic is being driven by southern regions, where the variant has become the dominant strain, with cases still falling of flattening in the North and Midlands, where it is yet to become widespread.
Officials fear, however, it is only a matter of time before the mutant variant – which is up to 56 per cent more infectious than regular Covid and was first detected in Kent in September – becomes prevalent everywhere.
About two-thirds of people testing positive in London, the East and the South East, are thought to have the new variant, the ONS said. Nationally, the strain is thought to make up 50 per cent of infections.
The ONS estimates 645,800 people were infected with coronavirus in the week ending December 18, which marked a 14 per cent rise on the previous week and a 34 per cent jump from a fortnight ago, when the second national lockdown ended.
The report found London became the country’s Covid-19 hotspot in the most recent recording period, with one in 45 Londoners carrying the disease by December 18. Just a day later Boris Johnson scrapped Christmas mixing plans for people living in the capital, which led to thousands fleeing London that evening to lower tiered parts of the country. There are now fears the mass exodus may have helped spread the new strain around the country.
A separate report by Public Health England today found London’s coronavirus cases have tripled in a fortnight. The capital was recording 602 cases per 100,000 people in the week ending December 20, up from 200 two weeks ago.
The capital and the South East of England have been placed under the harshest Tier 4 restrictions in a bid to curb the spread of the new variant, which puts 24million people in another full lockdown in all but name. There have been calls from some scientists within SAGE for another national shutdown to get a grip on the winter wave of infections, but the ONS’ finding that there is a huge north-south divide makes a strong argument against it.
As the country struggles to get a hold on new strain of the virus, Matt Hancock announced yesterday that a second mutated variant even more infectious than the Kent version had been detected in the UK. The second strain, known as 501Y.V2, has already been found in London and North West England after being brought to the UK from South Africa.
The number of people with coronavirus in England last week spiked to pre-second lockdown levels with almost 646,000 people carrying the illness
Tracking of samples of the new variant shows that cases have been found all over England but they are mostly concentrated in the East, South East and London, with fewer detected in the Midlands and the North. The green dots are not relative to the number of people infected and each may only represent one person
The ONS report said: ‘In the most recent week, the percentage of people testing positive for the coronavirus in England has continued to increase; during the most recent week (12 to 18 December 2020), we estimate 645,800 people within the community population in England had the coronavirus, equating to around 1 in 85 people.
‘Over the most recent week, the percentage of people testing positive has continued to increase sharply in London, the East of England, and the South East; London now has the highest percentage of people testing positive.’
But it showed the outbreak is being driven by infection surges in the South, with rates in the North and the Midlands either falling or flattening off.
It added: ‘During the most recent week of the study (12 to 18 December), the percentage of people testing positive has continued to increase sharply in London, the East of England, and the South East. London now has the highest percentage of people testing positive.
‘In the most recent week, the percentage testing positive in the South West has increased. The percentages of people testing positive in the North West and Yorkshire and The Humber have continued to decrease in the most recent week.
‘The percentages testing positive have decreased in the most recent week in the North East and the East Midlands. Caution should be taken in over-interpreting any small movements in the latest trend.’
All age groups are seeing infection rates rise, the report said, except those aged 70 and above, where there are ‘early signs’ of a decrease.
Secondary school-aged children continue to have the highest infection rates of any age group, with at least one in 35 youngsters carrying the virus in the week to December 18.
It comes amid fears the new strain of the virus makes children more susceptible to Covid-19 infection. Children were very unlikely to test positive for 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.
The percentage of those of all age groups testing positive also increased sharply in the the most recent week in Wales, where the ONS estimated that 52,200 people had the virus, the equivalent of one in 60 people.
Health chiefs there believe the mutant strain of the virus is driving its infection rate up, although not as many cases have been officially detected.
In Northern Ireland, it’s estimated 10,100, or one in 180, had the virus in the week ending December 18, and 37,100 or one in 140 in Scotland.
The ONS report comes as scientists who advise SAGE on the coronavirus say that speeding up vaccinations may be the only way to stop the new variant of the virus that has emerged in Kent.
The mutated Kent coronavirus is 56 per cent more infectious than its predecessor, researchers warned, and will likely cause more deaths from the virus in England next year than the almost 70,000 recorded in 2020 even if lockdowns are imposed nationwide.
They said the variant – named B.1.1.7 – would lead to more fatalities simply because it would trigger a greater number of cases, meaning more Britons who are most at risk would catch the virus.
There is still no evidence to suggest the variant is any more deadly than previous versions of Covid-19, but even if it kills the same percentage of people who catch it, more cases will inevitably lead to more deaths.
As many as 118,000 people could succumb to the virus next year – 70 per cent more than in 2020 – if only the three-tiered set of restrictions is left in place until July, the experts from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine warned.
Calling for yet more draconian curbs on people’s lives across England, they said only a full national lockdown with primary and secondary schools shut in January – unlike in England’s second shutdown – was the only measure offering hope of driving deaths below the number registered in 2020.
But this would only be achieved with a ‘greatly accelerated’ vaccination programme with at least two million Britons getting their first dose every week from the start of 2021, because immunising people may be the only way to stop new variant.
They said a national lockdown with 200,000 vaccinations a week would drive deaths to 83,200 by July next year, 18 per cent more than last year. But with a ramping up of vaccinations they predicted deaths would fall to 35,700, half those registered in 2020.
The Pfizer vaccine has already been approved, but only given to some 500,000 Britons in the first two weeks of the programme, prompting warnings that the roll-out needs to be sped up.
The Oxford/AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine, of which the UK has ordered 100million doses, is expected to get the green light before the end of this year – promising to jump-start vaccinations as millions more jabs are dished out to hospitals and GP surgeries.
Professor John Edmunds, Professor Sebastian Funk and Professor Rosalind Eggo, who are all members of the SAGE advisory group SPI-M-O, contributed to the study published online yesterday.
‘The increase in transmissibility is likely to lead to a large increase in incidence, with Covid-19 hospitalisations and deaths projected to reach higher levels in 2021 than were observed in 2020,’ they wrote, ‘even if regional tiered restrictions implemented before December 19 are maintained.
‘Our estimates suggest that control measures of a similar stringency to the national lockdown in England in November 2020 are unlikely to reduce the effective reproduction rate [R number] to less than one, unless primary schools, secondary schools and universities are closed.’
They continued: ‘We project that large resurgences of the virus are likely to occur following easing of control measures.
‘It may be necessary to greatly accelerate vaccine roll out to have an appreciable impact in suppressing the resulting disease burden.’
They warned in the paper that the second wave may not peak until spring in London, the South East and East of England, but would not reach its highest level until the summer in the rest of England.
To estimate how much more infectious this variant of the virus is, the researchers considered how quickly cases of it were expanding in comparison to strains of other viruses in the same areas.
The London School of Hygiene study claimed that only doing 2million vaccinations per week from January while the entire country is in a Tier 4 lockdown for a month would be enough to stop the coronavirus death toll doubling in the next six months
Hospital admissions will also surge to levels higher than seen throughout the entire of this year within the first six months of 2021, the terrifying predictions showed
This graph shows how the new variant could affect hospital admissions and deaths from Covid-19 in London, the East and the South East, where the strain is now widespread. The grey bar illustrates a total Tier 4 lockdown, with the coloured lines then representing different types of local restrictions. The modelling shows that while the initial lockdown would help to bring down admissions and deaths, only Tier 4 with schools closed (teal line) would be strong enough to limit the damage in spring
By looking at all Covid infections in one area, the scientists could rule out most other impacts on transmission, such as different lockdown rules and social mixing behaviours. They found that the variant appeared to be spreading around 56 per cent faster than any other type of the coronavirus, suggesting it is more infectious.
And to consider the impact this might have next year, the experts modelled four scenarios from mid-December to the end of June in their study, to estimate how many deaths would be triggered by differing levels of restrictions.
As many as 118,000 people could die – considerably more than the 70,000 in the entire of 2020 – by June if only the Three-Tier system is left in place, they warned.
This fell to 107,000 if Tier Four was imposed across England until January 31, but with schools and universities re-opening on January 4 like in England’s second lockdown.
But if educational institutions were shuttered until the end of January, they said the resultant down-turn on the spread of the virus meant that 102,000 deaths would be recorded in the first half of next year.
This was the lowest number of deaths predicted, but still above the levels recorded in 2020.
The final scenario – of a total lockdown with school closures – was also considered alongside having 200,000 or two million people getting vaccinated every week, to see how the speed of the vaccine roll-out could help.
They assumed that someone was immune as soon as they received their first dose, arguing that this could be made because they were considering vaccinations from January 4 – which left out the more than 500,000 shots dished out in December.
In the former scenario, their modelling suggested up to 83,300 deaths would occur. But in the latter this fell to 35,700 – the only figure that was below the number of deaths recorded in 2020.
Their study, which is yet to be published by a journal, has also not been peer-reviewed. This means their predictions are yet to be scrutinised by other scientists.
Professor Edmunds was part of the team that predicted in October that deaths from coronavirus could surge to 2,000 a day and peak during December without further rapid action to curb the spread of the virus.