U.K. Says Covid-19 May No Longer Be Spreading Exponentially

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The coronavirus pandemic may no longer be spreading exponentially in the U.K., according to government data suggesting the country’s third lockdown is working.

The official estimate of the “R rate” — which measures how many people each infected person passes the virus on to — fell to between 0.8 and 1, the results released on Friday showed. When R is above 1 the virus spreads exponentially. Last week, the R rate was estimated to be between 1.2 and 1.3.

The government said the case rates remain “dangerously high” and urged the public to keep to lockdown rules.

“There’s a small minority who don’t, a small minority who flout the rules and don’t think they matter,” Environment Secretary George Eustice told Times Radio. “We can see that it does matter if you look at the pressure on hospitals at the moment.”

Nevertheless, the data will provide welcome news to Boris Johnson’s government, which was forced to put the country into another lockdown at the start of January after a highly infectious new strain of the disease took hold.

The figures from the Department of Health show the estimated R rate has fallen in all regions England since last week. In London, it fell to between 0.7 and 0.9, suggesting the disease is clearly in retreat in the capital, where hospitals are still under intense pressure. London Mayor Sadiq Khan on Friday reiterated his call for the government to strengthen regulations.

The estimates for the R rate tally with findings from other sources. Earlier on Friday, statistics suggested the number of people in England infected with Covid-19 fell slightly in the week to Jan. 16.

Johnson’s government wants to begin lifting restrictions once it has vaccinated 15 million of the most vulnerable people and their carers. But the prime minister signaled Thursday that the fast-spreading variant could mean lockdown measures are needed into the summer.

Papers released by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies on Friday show there’s cause for caution even with the R rate below 1. According to one document dated Jan. 6, scientists expect the prevalence of the virus to drop more slowly than during the first lockdown last spring even if R remains below 1 until mid-February.

“As a result, it is highly likely that hospital occupancy will be at or above its current levels in mid-February,” it said. At the time, there were almost 32,000 coronavirus patients in U.K. hospitals, according to government data, a figure that was already about a third higher than the peak in the first wave last April.

Officials have repeatedly said they expect cases to plateau and fall in the current lockdown long before the rate of hospitalizations and daily deaths show significant improvement.

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