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English COVID-19 infections starting to fall, but prevalence still high, study finds

LONDON (Reuters) - The number of COVID-19 infections in England is starting to fall, possibly reflecting the impact of a new lockdown, but cases are not coming down quickly enough and prevalence remains very high, a large study showed on Thursday.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday indicated that the COVID-19 lockdown in England would last until at least March 8, dashing any lingering hopes that schools would be able to fully reopen in February.

The Imperial College London study found that the numbers infected with coronavirus are at their highest since the study began last May.

The authors of the study, which is known as REACT-1, said they had found that any effect of the English lockdown, introduced on Jan. 5, had been slow in lowering prevalence of infections, with the impact uneven across regions.

"It seems to be coming down in the last few days so we are heartened by that," Professor Paul Elliott, director of the programme at Imperial, told reporters, after interim results published last week found no evidence of decline in the first days of lockdown.

"But ... we really need to get prevalence down more quickly, because the pressure on the NHS (National Health Service) is very extreme right now."

For the study for the period of between Jan. 6 and 22, national prevalence was 1.57%, or 157 per 10,000 people infected, with prevalence highest in London at 2.83%.

But by the end of the period, London and other areas of the South were showing declines in prevalence, whereas there was clear evidence of a growth in cases in the East Midlands. The pattern in other regions was that prevalence was flat.

Health Minister Matt Hancock said the findings were "a stark reminder of the need to remain vigilant".

The United Kingdom as a whole has recorded 101,887 deaths from COVID-19 - the world's fifth-highest official toll.

(Reporting by Alistair Smout; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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