While fresh data appears to show a drop in COVID infections during lockdown, some areas are still showing a rise despite ongoing restrictions.
Three weeks into the third national lockdown in England, positive test results for coronavirus appear to be rising in the East Midlands, according to findings from Imperial College London’s React study.
Graphs of English regions show a slight fall in infections across most areas, with the East Midlands still increasing at the end of the date range on 22 January.
Infections in the North East also appear to be showing a slight increase from the 6 January start point of the survey of 167,600 volunteers.
The data also shows that COVID infections remained very high throughout the test period, with one in 64 people infected.
The data comes after Boris Johnson announced lockdown measures will remain in place in England until at least 8 March, and said travellers returning to the UK from “red list” countries will be sent to quarantine hotels for 10 days.
The findings from the study show infections in England have flattened but are at the highest level recorded by the researchers, with the indication of a decline in the last week of the survey.
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The main findings from the eighth round of the study suggest national prevalence was 1.57%, or 157 per 10,000 people infected, and it estimated the national R number to be at 0.98 with a range of 0.92 to 1.04.
Regional prevalence was highest in London at 2.83%, while in the South West it was 0.87%.
Prevalence increased nationally in all adult age groups and was highest in 18 to 24-year-olds at 2.44%, while prevalence in the over-65s is 0.93% – almost one in 100.
The data comes days after chief medical officer Chris Whitty said that COVID cases were falling from a "very, very high level” – but may still be increasing in some areas.
He warned: "A very small change and it could start taking off again from an extremely high base.”
The study states that number of people infected with coronavirus is at the highest level recorded in England since May – although the most recent figures take into account a selective three-week period.
Professor Paul Elliott, director of the programme at Imperial, said: “The number of people infected with the virus is at the highest level that we’ve recorded since we began testing last May.
“We’re not seeing the sharp drop in infections that happened under the first lockdown and if infections aren’t brought down significantly, hospitals won’t be able to cope with the number of people that need critical care.”
Elliott added: “I think the suggestion now that there is a decline happening, particularly in some regions may reflect now that the restrictions through lockdown are beginning to have some effect on the prevalence.”
He said that even though there is a suggestion of “a downtick”, it is by no means as fast as happened in the first lockdown.
The researchers say it will be some time before the impact of vaccination reduces pressures on hospitals.
More optimistically, Steven Riley, professor of infectious disease dynamics at Imperial College London, said the concern that social mixing at Christmas would cause a spike in infections was not being played out by the data.
He explained: “You would have expected a peak a week to 10 days after that increased mixing, and in our data we don’t see evidence of that and it’s certainly not in the ONS and some of the other data sources.”
The React study from Imperial College London and Ipsos Mori has been conducted every month since May, excluding December.
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