Northern cases 'double in a week' but R rate 'down in other parts of England'

Coronavirus cases are doubling twice as fast in parts of the north compared to the rest of England, as the latest estimates said more than 200,000 people caught the virus in just one week. 

Two major studies tracking the pandemic have today released their latest results – providing further proof the country is at a ‘critical point in the second wave’.

Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated that 224,400 people in England had coronavirus between September 25 and October 1, equivalent to about one in 240 people.

The represents a big jump from 116,600 people who were estimated to have had coronavirus in the previous week.

But experts working on the React study at Imperial College London said the rise in cases in skewed significantly to cities in the north and Midlands. 

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This study looks as swabs taken from 174,949 volunteers tested across the country between September 18 and Monday this week.

It found cases overall are doubling every 29 days, much slower than the 13 days estimated for the period mid-August to early September, resulting in a national reproductive rate (the R number) of 1.16.

At a regional level, the team estimated cases are doubling much quicker – every 17 days in the North West, 13 days in Yorkshire and the Humber and 14 days in the West Midlands.

However, they said the doubling time may be as low as seven days in Yorkshire and the West Midlands, and every nine days in the North West.

The authors said ‘further fixed-duration measures should be considered to reduce the infection rate and limit the numbers of hospital admissions and deaths from Covid-19’.

Figures from the UK’s official daily case toll have consistently shown positive test results are double this week what they were last week, although the data was hit by a spreadsheet error which led to thousands initially being missed out. 

The ONS study, which does not include people in hospitals or care homes, also shows cases are doubling in a week.

It said there were an average of 17,200 new cases per day between September 25 and October 1, up from an estimated 8,400 new cases per day for the period from September 18 to 24.

In September, Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor said if the epidemic doubles every seven days, there could be 50,000 cases a day by mid October, and 200 deaths a day a month later. 

The Imperial study concluded that there may already be as many as 45,000 cases a day in England, where ‘about one in 170’ people currently have the virus.

It said ‘prevalence has increased in all age groups, including those at highest risk’.

The highest prevalence of the virus is among 18 to 24-year olds, but prevalence among anyone aged 65 and over has increased eight-fold since mid August to early September, to 0.33%, the report said.

It also found that at least half of people with Covid-19 will also not display symptoms on the day of testing or in the previous week.

The experts concluded: ‘Improved compliance with existing policy and, as necessary, additional interventions are required to control the spread of (coronavirus) in the community and limit the numbers of hospital admissions and deaths from Covid-19.’

The report put the R value in the North West at 1.27, at 1.37 in Yorkshire and the Humber, and 1.33 in the West Midlands.

For London, the team estimated an R value of 0.97 and suggested the high number of cases seen in the first wave may have had an effect on the capital.

Professors Steven Riley and Paul Elliott, from Imperial College London, led the study, which included colleagues from the University of Oxford and Lancaster University.

Prof Riley said there was evidence of ‘continued growth and possibly rapid growth’ in regions such as the North West, Yorkshire and the West Midlands but the key message across England was that ‘prevalence is high’.

He added: ‘Prevalence is going to continue to go up unless either compliance with the messaging improves, or additional measures are introduced that are supported by the general public. There is a very strong epidemiological case for trying to reduce the transmission right now.’

Prof Riley said prior exposure to the virus among people in London could be contributing to its lower R rate.

He said a degree of immunity ‘will be making some effect, but it’s not clear as to what degree’, adding that ‘on average across London, the total amount of immunity is quite low’.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan said today he thinks more restrictions are ‘inevitable’ in London next week.

Asked by reporters how far England was off the pandemic peak seen earlier in the year, Prof Riley said: ‘If things don’t change and the patterns that we describe continue, then in a relatively short period of time we will get back to comparable prevalences in some parts of the country.’

He said the data supported further restrictions in the north of England ‘sooner rather than later’.

Professor Elliott said the combination of the current restrictions, including the rule of six, was ‘possibly having some effect, but not enough to turn down the virus’.

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