Cases of Covid-19 in England may no longer be falling, and could even have risen at the start of the country’s third national lockdown, a long-running study by Imperial College London found.
Researchers analysed swab tests from 142,000 volunteers from January 6-15 and found that infections were up by 50% compared to early December, with 1 in 63 people in the country infected.
Some 1.58% of people tested positive for the virus during the early January round of the study, the highest prevalence recorded since May. That is more than a 50% increase from the previous round in early December 2020.
“The prevalence is very, very high compared to our last survey where we saw that uptick in December when that new variant came in,” Paul Elliott, director of the REACT programme at Imperial College London told BBC’s Today Programme on Thursday.
“But we’ve found that it’s levelled off, the R value [or how many other people each person with coronavirus will infect] is around 1, so we’re at a position where the levels are high and are not falling now within the period of this current lockdown,” Elliott said.
The study warned that “until prevalence in the community is reduced substantially, health services will remain under extreme pressure and the cumulative number of lives lost during this pandemic will continue to increase rapidly.”
The findings are at odds with the latest figures from the UK government which had been showing a decline in new daily reported cases at the beginning of the week.
Elliott said on Thursday that he believes this discrepancy may be a result of the REACT study testing people randomly, rather than those showing symptoms, and of government data not yet reflecting an increase in population mobility after Christmas.
Speaking on Sky News on Thursday, UK Minister for Education Gavin Williamson said that “the evidence that we’ve been seeing is that [the lockdown] has been having an impact in terms of relieving some of that pressure on the NHS so the NHS is able to cope but of course government always looks all the evidence that is available.”
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock tweeted Thursday that, "these findings show why we must not let down our guard over the weeks to come. Infections across England are at very high levels & it is paramount that everyone plays their part to bring them down."
The UK recorded 38,905 new coronavirus cases and a 1,820 further coronavirus-related deaths on Wednesday, marking the highest daily increase in deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, according to data from Public Health England.