'R' rate across UK falls below one for first time in six weeks

Henry Bodkin
·4 min read
Jeff Moore's famous piccadilly circus displays a message from HSBC bank using the word hope. - Jeff Moore 
Jeff Moore's famous piccadilly circus displays a message from HSBC bank using the word hope. - Jeff Moore

The 'R' value across the UK has fallen to below one for the first time in six weeks, with the number of daily cases halving since lockdown began.

In the first major signal that the restrictions are suppressing the virus, the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) announced a new figure of 0.8 to 1.0 on Friday, down from 1.2 to 1.3 last week.

It means the number of new infections is now shrinking by between one and four per cent every day.

All regions of England have now seen a decrease in the 'R' value and growth estimates compared to the week before.

The virus is in fastest retreat in London, the South-East and the east of England, which have laboured under heavier restrictions for longer, having been placed in Tier 4 before Christmas.

The last time the 'R' value was as low as 0.8 to 1.0 was on December 4, shortly after the second lockdown but before the new, more infectious variant had taken off.

The Department of Health and Social Care warned that cases remain "dangerously high", but the new figures were hailed by experts on Friday as "very encouraging news".

Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, a leading statistician at the University of Cambridge and a member of Sage, said: "We've had three weeks of rather slow decline. But overall it looks like getting down to nearly half of where we were three weeks ago, which is enormously hopeful.

"That change in infections follows through rather slowly to benefit from new [hospital] admissions, which have only looked like they have peaked now. They're starting to come down slowly."

It came as the latest figures from the King's College London ZOE symptom app, which analyses around one million weekly reports, indicated that the number of daily infections across the UK had decreased by 51 per cent in the fortnight up to January to 34,133.

London remains the worst area of the country for infections as of January 17, with one in 54 people infected according to ZOE. The percentage of positive cases comprising the new variant decreased in London, the South-East and the east of England in the week ending January 17 and levelled off in other regions, the ONS said.

This was followed by the Liverpool City Region and Essex Thurrock and Southend, both on one in 63.

The ZOE study found that the regions with the slowest decreases were the North-West, the West Midlands and the South-West, with an 'R' value of 0.9.

Professor Tim Spector, who leads the King's study, said: "According to ZOE app data, cases peaked on January 1 and like confirmed cases, we’ve seen cases continuing to fall with an estimated 'R' of 0.8.

"However, we expect these rapid downward trends will slow down, as we have seen before with this virus. Hospital admissions are still high, with hospitals full with 23 to 55 per cent Covid patients across the country.

"But admissions have started to flatten, and if the trend continues we expect hospital admissions to fall next week and deaths to start plateauing and falling in the near future."

Friday's Office for National Statistics (ONS) update indicated a less pronounced drop in infection rates.

In the week up to January 17 there were 1,023,700 people suffering from the virus in England, equating to one in 55 overall.

The new ONS study data estimates that around one in 70 people in Wales had Covid-19 between January 10 and 17 – unchanged from the previous estimate.

In Northern Ireland, the figure was one in 60 people, up from one in 200 for the December period, while the estimate for Scotland was broadly unchanged, up slightly from around one in 115 people for December 25 to 31 to one in 100 for January 10 to 17.

The percentage of positive cases comprising the new variant decreased in London, the South-East and the east of England in the week ending January 17 and levelled off in other regions, the ONS said.

The ONS also found that around one in 35 people in private households in London had Covid between January 10 and 17 – the highest figure for any region in England.

Sarah Crofts, the senior statistician for the survey, said: "In England we have seen a slight decrease in the percentage of people testing positive. However, rates remain high and we estimate the level of infection is still over one million people. The picture across the UK is mixed."