Britain has recorded another 16,840 coronavirus cases in the lowest daily rise for eight weeks, official figure show, as brutal lockdown restrictions continue to smother the second wave of the pandemic.
Department of Health figures showed the number of infections was16.2 per cent below the same time last week, when as many as 20,089 were announced. And it was half the levels two weeks ago of 33,355 cases.
Health chiefs also revealed a further 1,449 Covid deaths, marking a drop of 11.2 per cent from last Tuesday’s toll of 1,631 fatalities due to the disease. Deaths have been falling since January 23.
As many as 9.6million Britons have now received their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, as ministers race to meet their target of inoculating 15million of the most vulnerable by mid-February.
It comes as the Health Secretary begs Bristol residents to remain in their homes after revealing all 11 cases of a ‘super mutant’ Covid strain were identified in the city. Each has a mutation called E484K which has sparked panic among ministers because it was first identified on the South African variant and appears to boost the virus’s ability to avoid the immune system, raising the risk of reinfections or vaccines being less effective.
And in another blow to vaccine hopes a Cambridge study said delaying the second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine could leave some elderly patients at risk of catching coronavirus because a single shot might not be strong enough to stimulate the immune response needed to kill the virus.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock signalled that the testing ‘surge’ to tackle mutant strains is being expanded further in a statement to the Commons this afternoon
Retired engineer David Woodhead was among the first to be handed a PCR swab kit as part of the door-to-door blitz in Woking. The 75-year-old said he was more than happy to take part in the testing – but was worried that he lives in an area where the mutant South African strain has been found
SWEDEN SAYS IT WILL NOT RECOMMEND ASTRAZENECA JAB FOR OVER-65S
Sweden will not recommend the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine to over-65s, the country’s health ministry said today.
It comes after Germany advised against administering the jab to those over 65 and Emmanuel Macron claimed it was ‘almost ineffective’ for the age bracket.
Continental objections to the jab last week came amid a furious row between the Bloc and AstraZeneca over lagging supply, which has seen newly-unshackled Brexit Britain storm ahead in its immunisation roll-out.
Stockholm today agreed with Berlin that there was not enough data to show how the vaccine affects elderly patients.
Boris Johnson and UK health chiefs have insisted that the jab, made by Swedish-British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, is effective for all age groups.
But pouring petrol on the row again today, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen accused Britain of compromising on safety by giving swift approval to the jab.
The former German defence minister also took the chance to throw her deputy leader under the bus over the EU vaccine shambles.
Brussels last week descended into bitter attacks on Britain and AstraZeneca, which it accused of reneging on it contractual obligations to deliver the jab, with suspicions raised that the company had supplied the UK with the EU’s doses.
Mr Johnson said on Friday that the vaccine ‘is very good and efficacious’ after health officials in Berlin warned that there was ‘insufficient data to assess the efficacy of the vaccine for persons aged 65 years and older.’
In another day of coronavirus news, it comes as:
- Queen personally honours the passing of Captain Sir Tom Moore who died aged 100 from coronavirus after raising £33million to help the NHS;
- Covid-19 survivors may only need one shot of vaccine as they already have partial immunity, says study;
- Children should be offered jabs against the virus, say scientists, because schools are ‘not magical places where the virus doesn’t spread’;
- Fears are raised as Kent variant mutates again, with scientists warning the worrying development could make a strain that is more immune to vaccines;
- More than 100 queuing for Covid test in hotspot postcode told to come back tomorrow because testing kits are yet to arrive;
- NHS bosses are urged to expand the UK’s official Covid symptom list to include a runny nose, sore throat and headache by GPs;
- Coronavirus vaccines could be tweaked to spark immunity against new variants in just three weeks, top scientist says.
Matt Hancock signalled testing would be expanded across parts of England this afternoon in response to the emergence of new variants and the discovery of the South African strain.
‘In those areas where this variant has been found – parts of Broxbourne, London, Maidstone and Southport, Walsall and Woking – we’re putting in extra testing and sequencing every positive test,’ he told MPs.
‘Working with local authorities we’re going door to door to test everyone in those areas and mobile testing units will be deployed offering PCR tests to people who have to leave their home for work or other essential reasons.
‘We have also seen 11 cases of mutations of concern in Bristol and 32 in Liverpool, and are taking the same approach. In all these areas it is imperative that people must stay at home and only leave home where it is absolutely essential.’
Despite the frantic bid to try and stop the mutated variants spreading in Britain, scientists have warned the cases identified so far are likely just the ‘tip of the iceberg’.
It was announced last night that 11 patients infected with the South African variant had no travel links, suggesting the strain could already be spreading in the community.
People will not be told whether they are carrying the South African variant because this cannot be seen in a routine test, but the plan intends to find positive cases among people without symptoms in a bid to isolate them before they can infect others.
Ministers are urging people living in affected areas – specific parts of London, Surrey, Midlands, Kent, Hertfordshire, Merseyside and Lancashire – to be extremely strict about lockdown rules.
Downing Street said people in the areas with cases of the South African variant should ‘do everything they can’ to avoid contact with others.
Asked whether they should use up tinned or frozen food rather than buy fresh produce, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘We are asking everybody across the country to stay at home except for a small number of exemptions, one of which is to go shopping for food and essential items.
‘I would repeat what the Health Secretary said yesterday, that those in the postcodes that we set out should be extremely cautious and should do everything they can to minimise contact.’
Earlier, Tory MP and universities minister Michelle Donelan said: ‘Think again before you go about activities, even those within the rules such as essential shopping. Do you really need to go for that shopping or have you got enough in?’
In a desperate attempt to keep track of the South African variant that experts fear could effect the current crop of vaccines, health officials are carrying out swabs in Woking in Surrey, Walsall in the West Midlands, as well as parts of London, Kent, Hertfordshire and Lancashire
Mr Hancock suggested the testing could be extended to neighbouring postcodes when he was pushed in the Commons by Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth.
‘We absolutely do that where it is epidemiologically sensible,’ he said. ‘So, for instance, if the case is found on the border of a postcode, obviously we go across that border and we also investigate linked premises, for instance if somebody had a child at a school or is going to work in a particular workplace.’
However, experts are sceptical about the testing scheme and say there are far more than 11 people infected with the strain already and that testing will slow it down, at best.
Public Health England has discovered the cases through random spot-checks on the swabs that people testing positive have submitted through the official testing scheme. This means that only a small proportion of the cases are sampled and, if they can be picked up randomly, it is likely there are large numbers of them.
Professor Andrew Hayward, an infectious disease expert at University College London and a member of SAGE, said that the 11 cases are the ‘tip of the iceberg’. He told Sky News: ‘We sequence between five and 10 per cent of cases so you can immediately tell from that that we have a big under-estimation of the number of cases.’
And Professor Calum Semple, a researcher at the University of Liverpool and also a member of SAGE, said on BBC Radio 4: ‘There is probably a few more cases out there than we even know about’.
Today health officials joined forces with local police, councillors and firefighters to set up pop-up testing centres and visit homes in Woking in Surrey, Walsall in the West Midlands, as well as parts of London, Kent, Hertfordshire and Lancashire, to offer residents a swab.
But the scheme has already suffered a hiccup, with 100 people in Southport left queuing for more than an hour in the rain while waiting for a Covid test — only to be told the PCR kits had not arrived.
It comes as a study published today said delaying the second dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine could leave some elderly patients at heightened risk of catching the disease.
Antibody levels only appeared to be protective after a second dose said scientists from the University of Cambridge — but the researchers admitted the jab is still likely to be ‘less effective’ when dealing with the E484K mutation on the South African variant’s spike protein.
Experts believe the mutation — which is also present in the Brazilian Covid variants — helps the strain ‘hide’ from the body’s natural defences.
Top Government advisers and vaccine manufacturers insist the current crop of jabs should still work against the variant because the antibodies they make can still stop the disease from taking hold in the body. Antibodies — disease-fighting proteins created by vaccines and in response to previous infection — are also not the immune system’s only layer of defence.
Scientists reacting to the findings said now was ‘a good time to switch’ away from Britain’s one-dose strategy, which aims to get wider vaccine coverage quicker.
Regulators pivoted from their original plan to give people their second dose after 21 days when the Oxford University/AstraZeneca vaccine was approved at the end of December.