Threats of tighter lockdown restrictions in England receded on Thursday as ministers said they would concentrate on enforcing existing rules after encouraging signs that coronavirus infections were beginning to fall across the country.
The home secretary Priti Patel said the government was planning to “stick” with existing lockdown rules in the days ahead. “We are not thinking about bringing in new measures today or tomorrow,” she said.
But despite the fall in case numbers, ministers showed little sign that restrictions would be relaxed soon as pressures in hospitals remained acute and the daily death toll continued to rise.
Signs that coronavirus infections had now moved on to a downward trend increased on Thursday. The latest data show the average number of cases reported over the previous week down from a peak of 59,660 over the week to January 9 to 52,977 in the week to January 14.
Case numbers have been falling in most London boroughs since just after New Year.
Despite the decline, Boris Johnson and his government said it is “far too early” to say whether or not the country would be in a position to relax restrictions next month.
A meeting of the government’s Covid committee, led by Michael Gove, cabinet office minister, on Thursday centred on the threat of a new Brazilian variant of the virus. The government later announced it would ban flights from South America and Portugal from Friday.
Ministers also hailed figures showing that 2.5m people in England had received their first dose of the vaccine by Wednesday. The data do not yet show the effect of vaccinations on case rates among the over 80s.
However, weekly data showed a marked divergence in vaccination rates across England with London slipping behind. Just 31 per cent of the over 80 population in the capital had received a first jab by Sunday, compared with an average of 36 per cent across England as a whole.
The situation in hospitals continued to defy the rosier picture on infection rates — a consequence of the weeks-long time lag between contracting the disease and requiring hospital care. Public Health England said on Thursday that hospitalisations, intensive care unit admissions and mortality all continued to increase.
The hospital admission rate for Covid-19 patients was 37.20 per 100,000 in the week ending January 10, compared to 29.50 per 100,000 in the previous week, according to PHE. All regions except the north-east had increases; London continues to top the table with a rate of 58.19 per 100,000.
Yvonne Doyle, medical director at PHE, said the rate at which people were being admitted to hospital “is now higher than at any point during the pandemic. Worryingly, these numbers are likely to continue to get worse before we see the benefits of our efforts to protect the NHS, which will mean more pressure for our health service than ever before.”
Meanwhile, the latest performance data from NHS England showed a service under massive strain, as the rising burden of Covid patients added to traditionally overwhelming winter demands.
More than 4.45m people were waiting to start treatment at the end of November, and, of those, 192,169 patients had been waiting more than a year. More than 30 per cent were waiting more than 18 weeks, compared with an NHS target that no more than 8 per cent should be waiting this long.
Danny Mortimer, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents health organisations across the country, said the figures laid bare “the enormous, and increasingly untenable, pressure the NHS is under”. The numbers waiting for treatment would grow as a result of the rapid rise in Covid-19 infections since December, he added.