Boris Johnson 'delays tougher lockdown': England could escape Covid tightening for now after science chief Patrick Vallance says current measures are 'enough'

  • Ministers have been considering tightening lockdown amid fears over surge caused by mutant Covid-19 strain
  • Boris Johnson refused to rule out changes yesterday but hailed early signs the outbreak is flattening off
  • Sir Patrick Vallance warned that the UK now in 'period of high death numbers' which will not 'reduce quickly'
  • But he struck more optimistic tone saying it appeared current measures are bringing new cases under control 
  • Department of Health figures show the daily coronavirus death toll has risen to 50 per cent week-on-week
  • Analysis suggests that the overall number of deaths — suspected and confirmed — has passed 100,000
  • But statistics also show that the UK's outbreak is finally starting to slow, with cases. 

'Priti Patel said this morning that the Government is not bringing in new social distancing restrictions 'today or tomorrow'. 

In a series of appearances yesterday, Boris Johnson refused to rule out extra measures, but hailed 'early' signs that coronavirus is coming back under control.  

The PM insisted the measures in England were being kept 'under constant review' as Labour demanded to know why they were looser than last spring despite cases being higher. He warned that the NHS was at 'substantial risk' of being swamped, and the 'only way' of protecting it was to follow the 'current rules'. 

But despite the mounting death toll, Mr Johnson sounded a notably optimistic tone about the emerging impact of the restrictions. 
He said the country was 'now starting to see the beginnings of some signs' that the lockdown was having an effect in parts of the country, while stressing it was 'early days' and urged people to 'keep their discipline'. 

MailOnline analysis suggests the outbreak in England may have started slowing before the blanket lockdown on January 4, with infection numbers peaking in the worst-hit regions at the start of the year. The tide appears to have turned in parts of the country experiencing the worst outbreaks – London, the South East and the East of England – in the first week of 2021, with cases coming down since then. 

Coronavirus hospital admissions have also started to fall in London and the South East, although the numbers of patients are still rising on wards after surging above the peaks recorded in the first wave. 

Appearing in ITV's This Morning, Ms Patel stressed that ministers are focusing on increasing the enforcement of current restrictions to keep the spread of coronavirus down rather than bringing in new measures.

She said: 'The plans are very much to enforce the rules.
'This isn't about new rules coming in, we're going to stick with enforcing the current measures.

'We are not thinking about bringing in new measures today or tomorrow.'
Speaking to ITV's Peston programme last night, Sir Patrick said: 'The daily numbers jump around a bit but I think we are in a position now - when you look at the number of infections we've had over the past few weeks and how this is likely to continue, so I don't think they're going to drop very quickly - that I'm afraid we're in a period of high death numbers that's going to carry on for some weeks.

'It's not going to come down quickly even if the measures that are in place now start to reduce the infection numbers. So we're in for a pretty grim period, I'm afraid.' 

The three deadliest days of Britain's Covid crisis have all been recorded in 2021, with today's figure topping the 1,325 last Friday. But deaths always lag weeks behind cases, meaning fatality counts won't begin to drop until at least a fortnight after infections fall.  
Public Health England bosses said there had now been 'more deaths in the second wave than the first'.

But Government statistics also suggest the UK's outbreak is finally starting to slow. Another Sir Patrick did not rule out the need for tougher restrictions to help bring infection rates down further across the UK, but said current rules are clearly having some impact on the numbers.
He explained: 'I think we follow these [rules], the evidence we have so far is this is beginning to work, holding it flat, beginning to potentially push it down. We need to monitor it and you know it may be that we need more on top of this at some point, I'm absolutely not ruling that out.

'It may be that we need more on top of this, and I think those obviously are decisions that ministers would need to make. But I think at the moment the evidence is that this is having an effect.'   
The PM was grilled at PMQs and then by the cross-party Liaison Committee yesterday as he faced another barrage of demands for the national clampdown to be tightened even further - something that Nicola Sturgeon has announced is happening in Scotland.

Speaking to MPs, the Prime Minister said he was 'concerned' about the new Brazilian variant of the virus.

'We already have tough measures, as you know, to stop from new infections come from abroad. We are taking steps to do that in response to the Brazilian variation.'

It is still yet to be identified in the UK, and there is no evidence that it causes a more severe infection than other strains - although there are fears it may be as transmissible as the Kent strain.

It is normal for viruses to mutate and early signs don't suggest that any of the new variants of coronavirus are more deadly than others, but in some places it is evolving to be able to spread faster.
If the virus is faster spreading it will inevitably lead to more cases which will in turn lead to a higher death count, even if the strain itself isn't more dangerous.
During the Committee, the Prime Minister also warned parents he still wasn't sure whether schools would be allowed to re-open after the February half-term.

When asked if they would re-open next month, he said: 'The priority is obviously to get schools open as soon as possible, whether we can do that after the half term depends on a number of things. The success of the vaccination process, depends on us not finding out the South African or Brazilian variants are vaccine resistant.

'We have no evidence that they are, but that's got to go well. But the crucial thing is the lockdown measures have to go well. What we are seeing today is some early signs of progress in containing the virus, but it is far, far too early to say if we can see any relaxation in February.' 

Downing Street is considering options ranging from limiting takeaways and click and collect, to closing more workplaces and nurseries and banning people from exercising with friends. 
Scientists have cautioned that critical capacity in the NHS will still be under enormous strain into March due to the lag between infection and people getting ill, with up to 250,000 people a day said to be catching the virus.   

London Councils and Mayor Sadiq Khan yesterday appealed for Mr Johnson to bring in new measures such as closing places of worship immediately, or risk putting an 'unsustainable strain' on services.

Mr Khan lamented a 'heartbreaking' coronavirus milestone as it was confirmed more than 10,000 Londoners have fallen victim to the virus.

The latest data from Public Health England shows a total of 10,353 people in London have died within 28 days of a positive Covid-19 test. 

A further 7,606 people across the capital are currently in hospital with the disease - 35 per cent higher than the busiest day of the pandemic in the spring.

Ms Sturgeon told the Scottish Parliament yesterday that from Saturday she is banning drinking outdoors and non-essential click-and-collect, as well as going inside eateries to pick up a takeaway. 

Earlier, Mr Hancock defied mounting Tory calls to guarantee that the draconian restrictions will be eased from March 8 - around three weeks after the government is due to have vaccinated the 14million most vulnerable.

But in a glimmer of hope data from the Department of Health suggests England's outbreak may have started to slow down before the national lockdown started on January 4, as infection numbers appeared to peak in the worst-hit regions at the start of the year.

Millions living in London, the South East and East of England were forced into gruelling Tier 4 restrictions the weekend before Christmas, scuppering festive plans for millions as ministers tried to get a grip on the new variant of the virus.
And in the first week of January the region's infection rates began to drop, suggesting the highest level of measures may have been enough to thwart the spread of the super-infectious mutant strain.

It can take up to two weeks for someone who is infected with the virus to start showing symptoms, get a test and then receive a positive result, meaning there is a lag before the impact of restrictions shows up in the data.

In another positive sign the second wave may be waning, data also shows hospital admissions in London and the East of England peaked in the days after lockdown was imposed.

Department of Health statistics appear to show London's hit their peak on January 6 - on day two of the shutdown - when the seven-day average stood at 864. It dropped to 845 the following day. In the South East, hospitalisations also peaked on January 6 when they reached 662.
And in the East of England - which was plunged into the highest bracket of restrictions at the same time - they had started to level off by January 4.

It can take weeks for someone infected with the virus to suffer symptoms severe enough to be admitted to hospital, meaning there is a delay between a drop in cases and hospitalisations. But the early downturn adds to claims that Tier 4 - which kept schools open - was enough to control the mutant variant.
Even as they slowed across the capital and in regions first plunged into the toughest bracket, however, the number of patients in hospital continued to rise because the number of new cases needing treatment each day is still high.
And hospital admissions for patients suffering from the virus are also continuing to rise in the South West, North West, North East and Midlands.
Despite the drops, hospital admissions remain above the highest levels seen during the darkest days of the first wave and in the final month of last year - in a warning sign health care staff could yet be overwhelmed. 

In London they stood at 150 at the start of December before soaring upwards, and never went above 750 in April. For the South East, they stood at 165 in December, and never moved above 323 in the first wave. 

It's still too soon for the effects of national lockdown to show up reliably in data but cases starting to come down in some of the worst-affected places suggests that Tier 4 rules were working before they were abandoned.  

Some Government scientists fear, however, the true case rate is still running at more than 250,000 a day. They have warned the Prime Minister that, even with the rollout of the vaccine, the death rate may not start to fall until the middle of next month.

Despite the more positive news on infections, Sir Keir goaded Mr Johnson at PMQs yesterday that he was already too late toughening the rules.  

'The next big decision is obvious, the current restrictions are not strong enough to control the virus,' he said.
'Can the Prime Minister tell us when infection rates are much higher than in March, when hospital admissions are much higher than last March, when death rates are much higher than last March, why on earth are restrictions weaker than last March?'
Mr Johnson responded: 'We keep things under constant review and we will continue to do so.
'And certainly if there is any need to toughen up restrictions, which I don't rule out, we will of course come to this House.'

But he also highlighted the 'serious damage that is done by lockdowns'. 
'The lockdown measures we have in place combined with tier four measures that we were using are starting to show signs of some effect and we must take account of that too,' Mr Johnson said. 
Sir Keir took the premier to task for being 'slow to act' when infection rates began to surge in December.

'The last PMQs was on December 16,' the Labour leader said. 'The Prime Minister told us then that we were seeing, in his words, a significant reduction in the virus. He told us then that there was no need for endless lockdowns and no need to change the rules about Christmas mixing.

'Since then, since that last PMQs, 17,000 people have died of Covid, 60,000 people have been admitted to hospital and there has been over a million new cases. How did the Prime Minister get it so wrong and why was he so slow to act?'
But a clearly infuriated Mr Johnson shot back: 'Of course, what (Sir Keir) fails to point out is that on December 18, two days later, the Government was informed of the spread of the new variant and the fact that it spreads roughly 50-70 per cent faster than the old variant, and that is why it is indeed correct to say that the situation today is very troubling indeed.'
He added: 'This is the toughest of times, but we can see the way forward.


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