SAGE expert warns lifting lockdown restrictions would be a 'disaster'

SAGE expert warns lifting lockdown restrictions in February would be a ‘disaster’ and pile ‘enormous pressure’ on the NHS despite Covid vaccine rollout

  • Professor John Edmunds warns vaccines aren’t ever 100% protective, and you can still be at risk after the jab
  • It comes amid reports that a mass rollout for Britons in their 70s could begin as early as next week
  • The UK has led the way with vaccinations across Europe, having now administered some 3.3 million jabs

Removing coronavirus restrictions at the end of next month would be a ‘disaster’ and put ‘enormous pressure’ on the NHS, a leading epidemiologist has warned.

Professor John Edmunds, who works on the Government’s coronavirus response as part of the scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage), told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme there would be significant consequences to lifting current rules, even despite the success of the Covid vaccine programme so far.

A mass rollout for Britons in their 70s could begin as early as next week, after some 3.3 million jabs have already been administered across the country.

However, Professor Edmunds remains concerned, and said: ‘I think it would be a disaster if we removed restrictions in, say, the end of February when we have gone through this first wave of the vaccination.

‘First of all vaccines aren’t ever 100% protective, and so even those that have been vaccinated would be still at some risk.

‘Secondly, it is only a small fraction of the population who would have been vaccinated and if you look at the hospitalisations at the moment, about half of them are in the under 70s, and they are not in the first wave to be vaccinated.

‘If we relaxed our restrictions we would immediately put the NHS under enormous pressure again.’

It comes as medics have revealed that GPs are being forced to throw away leftover vaccines rather than give patients second doses or use them on staff.

Advice boards by HM Government, and NHS for members of the public to follow the message to stay at home and save lives during the third national coronavirus lockdown in Putney High Street

A social distancing sign on Old Bond Street in Mayfair today, with the capital once again deserted as a result of the lockdown

Pub benches are taped off outside the Eight Bells pub in Putney during the third national lockdown, with venues forced to close

Professor John Edmunds, who works on the Government’s coronavirus response as part of the scientific advisory group for emergencies (Sage), told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme there would be significant consequences to lifting current rules, even despite the success of the Covid vaccine programme so far

The revelation follows reports that hospitals are being told to clear as many beds as possible ahead of a potential mass influx of Covid patients, with some health chiefs frustrated that London’s 64-bed Nightingale Hospital at the ExCel centre had just six patients yesterday.

Local NHS leaders are said to have issued the vaccine disposal instructions to doctors organising clinics, despite Professor Chris Whitty saying yesterday the UK’s roll-out of vaccinations was being held back by delayed deliveries of the Pfizer jab.

This is despite Britain leading the way on the continent with 3.3 million people – one in 20 – already vaccinated, while there are also plans to roll out jabs to those in their 70s – third and fourth on the priority list behind those aged over 80, care home residents and frontline health and social care workers – as early as next week. 

Officials insist the programme could go even faster if there were enough supplies to keep it running at pace.

Some surgeries are taking a stand against the orders, described as ‘bordering on criminal’, but others fear their supplies will be cancelled if they don’t comply. 

Supply chain uncertainty – particularly around the Pfizer jab which needs to be kept at -70C – means GPs are struggling to book the exact number of appointments for clinics and in some cases patients haven’t turned up having been given little time to prepare.

The NHS said there was ‘no reason’ why stocks should be wasted, insisting vaccination sites should make sure a back-up list of patients and staff who can get the jab at short-notice if there are such absences is drawn up. 

Dr Robert Morley, the director of professional support at the Birmingham Local Medical Committee said the instructions were being reported by doctors across the country.

He told the Telegraph: ‘This is ridiculous, bordering on the criminal, to actually be wasting vaccines when you have the worst global healthcare crisis for a century.

‘The logical thing to do would be to use [the leftovers] as a second dose for healthcare workers, for example, who may be there in the building.’ 

The British Medical Association described the reports as ‘extremely concerning, absolutely unacceptable and morally wrong’, warning any wasted dose denies someone the chance to be protected from the virus, and, perhaps ultimately, death.

The crisis in hospitals has also escalated, with bosses told to prepare extra wards and critical care beds over the coming weeks.

While infection numbers are finally beginning to drop, the number of hospitalisations could rise in the next fortnight due to how long it can take people to become seriously ill.  

In other coronavirus news:

  •  Both Brazilian Covid variants are ‘likely’ already in the UK, expert warns, as aviation bosses warn industry ‘urgently’ needs help to survive;
  • PM suspends ALL travel corridors from 4am Monday and everyone needs negative Covid test for entry;
  • Even Whitty and Vallance sound half-way cheery as Boris says mass compliance with third lockdown has brought COVID outbreak under control;
  • Chancellor WON’T bring in a one-off levy to cover the £280billion spent fighting coronavirus;
  • More than 300,000 Covid jabs are delivered in one day as Government announces nearly one in 20 Britons have now had a vaccine  

Dr Robert Morley, the director of professional support at the Birmingham Local Medical Committee told the Telegraph: ‘This is ridiculous, bordering on the criminal, to actually be wasting vaccines when you have the worst global healthcare crisis for a century’

Scotland brings in further coronavirus measures in response to ‘extremely serious’ situation 

Toughened lockdown restrictions have come into force in Scotland due to a rapidly spreading strain of Covid-19.

In response to what the First Minister called an ‘extremely serious’ situation, further measures have been brought in to stop the spread of coronavirus and limit non-essential contact.

People who live in a Level 4 area – currently all of mainland Scotland – should not leave or remain outside their home, except for essential purposes.

Working from home has become a default position for all businesses through statutory guidance and services, and only those who cannot do their job from home should go into a workplace.

Guidance previously issued to only allow essential work to be undertaken inside people’s homes has also been placed into law.

Ms Sturgeon confirmed coronavirus regulations will change to forbid people from leaving home for anything other than an essential purpose and that police can challenge people for doing something considered not to be essential after they have left the house.

Entering businesses to purchase takeaway food and drinks has also been stopped. Now, premises will need to operate using a hatch or counter at the door. Drinking alcohol in public outdoors has also been banned.

Non-essential click-and-collect services are now prohibited.

Essential services – including clothing and footwear stores, homeware stores, garden centres/plant nurseries, baby equipment shops, electrical goods (including repairs), key cutting and shoe repair shops, and bookstores – can continue to offer click-and-collect services, but must operate with timeslots.

In a statement to Parliament, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Wednesday: ‘The situation we face in relation to the virus remains extremely serious.

‘We must continue to do everything possible to reduce case numbers – this is essential to relieve the pressure on our NHS and to save lives.

‘Both individually and collectively, these additional measures – in further reducing the interactions that allow the virus to spread – will help our essential efforts to suppress it.

‘At this critical and dangerous moment, please: Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.’

Commenting on the click-and-collect ban for many shops, Scottish Retail Consortium director David Lonsdale said: ‘Industry has spent months pleading for greater visibility over potential next steps with Covid restrictions and a more consistent approach.

‘The only constant in recent weeks, however, is a continual chopping and changing of the Covid Strategic Framework, with every twist and turn to Government rules adding fresh complexity and confusion.

‘Food takeaway firms and retailers operating click-and-collect are striving to implement and operationalise these latest Byzantine new restrictions to a ludicrously short timetable, more so given ministers have only just published the regulations and guidance.’

 

Yesterday it emerged that vaccine manufacturer Pfizer is shrinking and delaying its deliveries to Europe while it expands its factory in Belgium.

The company makes one of just two vaccines that are being given to the public in the UK and confirmed that Britain would be affected in late January and February.

Concerns about vaccine deliveries in the UK swelled this week as the Government repeatedly refused to reveal how many are available and how many more are coming next week.

Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, said that the amount of vaccines available was the ‘limiting’ factor of how fast the country’s roll-out could go.

It comes as the opening of the West Midlands’ second mass vaccination centre at the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley is ‘imminent’.

Prof David Loughton, chief executive of Wolverhampton’s hospital trust, said: ‘As far as the Black Country Museum is concerned, it’s opening is fairly imminent, I believe it’s about (January) the 25th.

‘Most importantly, we are in the final stages of identifying a number of other sites and that will be rolled out as quickly as possible.

‘We’re also confident in terms of hitting the (vaccination) targets that we need to hit by the middle of February.’

Dr Peter Ingham, a Sutton Coldfield GP and specialist primary care advisor overseeing Birmingham’s Millennium Point mass vaccination centre, added: ‘We are looking at other sites, I cannot confirm the details of those currently, but we’re looking at another three sites for large vaccination centres to open, imminently.’

Meanwhile, toughened lockdown restrictions have come into force in Scotland due to a rapidly spreading strain of Covid-19.

In response to what the First Minister called an ‘extremely serious’ situation, further measures have been brought in to stop the spread of coronavirus and limit non-essential contact.

People who live in a Level 4 area – currently all of mainland Scotland – should not leave or remain outside their home, except for essential purposes.

Working from home has become a default position for all businesses through statutory guidance and services, and only those who cannot do their job from home should go into a workplace.

Guidance previously issued to only allow essential work to be undertaken inside people’s homes has also been placed into law.

Ms Sturgeon confirmed coronavirus regulations will change to forbid people from leaving home for anything other than an essential purpose and that police can challenge people for doing something considered not to be essential after they have left the house.

Entering businesses to purchase takeaway food and drinks has also been stopped. Now, premises will need to operate using a hatch or counter at the door. Drinking alcohol in public outdoors has also been banned.

Non-essential click-and-collect services are now prohibited.

Essential services – including clothing and footwear stores, homeware stores, garden centres/plant nurseries, baby equipment shops, electrical goods (including repairs), key cutting and shoe repair shops, and bookstores – can continue to offer click-and-collect services, but must operate with timeslots.

In a statement to Parliament, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said on Wednesday: ‘The situation we face in relation to the virus remains extremely serious.

‘We must continue to do everything possible to reduce case numbers – this is essential to relieve the pressure on our NHS and to save lives.

‘Both individually and collectively, these additional measures – in further reducing the interactions that allow the virus to spread – will help our essential efforts to suppress it.

‘At this critical and dangerous moment, please: Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.’

Commenting on the click-and-collect ban for many shops, Scottish Retail Consortium director David Lonsdale said: ‘Industry has spent months pleading for greater visibility over potential next steps with Covid restrictions and a more consistent approach.

‘The only constant in recent weeks, however, is a continual chopping and changing of the Covid Strategic Framework, with every twist and turn to Government rules adding fresh complexity and confusion.

‘Food takeaway firms and retailers operating click-and-collect are striving to implement and operationalise these latest Byzantine new restrictions to a ludicrously short timetable, more so given ministers have only just published the regulations and guidance.’ 

Meanwhile, both Brazilian Covid variants are ‘likely’ already in the UK, a Sage expert has warned after Boris Johnson declared that all arrivals to the UK will have to have tested negative for coronavirus from Monday.

Two variants of interest have been identified in South America; the first has a small number of mutations and eight genomically confirmed cases of this variant have been identified in the UK.

The second, which has been detected in Manaus and in travellers arriving in Japan, has not been detected in the UK but was described yesterday by government adviser Prof Wendy Barclay as the ‘variant of concern’.

However, Professor John Edmunds, who works on the Government’s Covid response, said this morning he would be surprised if both strains weren’t already in the UK. 

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘In terms of the South African one, we had imported cases already by the time we put in additional restrictions for South African travellers.

‘For the Brazilian one… I don’t think there is evidence that we’ve imported cases of the Manaus strain, as far as I’m aware at least, but it is likely that we probably have quite honestly.

‘We are one of the most connected countries in the world so I would find it unusual if we hadn’t imported some cases into the UK.’ 

BOTH Brazilian Covid variants are ‘likely’ already in the UK, expert warns, as aviation bosses warn industry ‘urgently’ needs help to survive

Both Brazilian Covid variants are ‘likely’ already in the UK, a Sage expert has warned after Boris Johnson declared that all arrivals to the UK will have to have tested negative for coronavirus from Monday.

Two variants of interest have been identified in South America; the first has a small number of mutations and eight genomically confirmed cases of this variant have been identified in the UK.

The second, which has been detected in Manaus and in travellers arriving in Japan, has not been detected in the UK but was described yesterday by government adviser Prof Wendy Barclay as the ‘variant of concern’.

However, Professor John Edmunds, who works on the Government’s Covid response, said this morning he would be surprised if both strains weren’t already in the UK. 

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘In terms of the South African one, we had imported cases already by the time we put in additional restrictions for South African travellers.

‘For the Brazilian one… I don’t think there is evidence that we’ve imported cases of the Manaus strain, as far as I’m aware at least, but it is likely that we probably have quite honestly.

‘We are one of the most connected countries in the world so I would find it unusual if we hadn’t imported some cases into the UK.’  

Meanwhile, Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, warned there will be many more variants this year, but the current vaccines should protect against the strains circulating in the UK.

‘As we look forward through 2021, we’re going to see lots of new variants and we’re going to have to get used to that,’ he said.

‘But the critical question is whether some of these new variants are adapting because of immunity amongst human populations – whether that is because of infection… or indeed as a result of vaccination.’ 

But he said that new variants were being detected early, and stressed: ‘If indeed we do need to make new vaccines we will be able to stand those up really quickly.’ 

Aviation minister Robert Courts told the same programme the decision to suspend all travel corridors was part of efforts to prevent the spread of exactly this. 

He said allowing people to travel without having to self-isolate was ‘fine back when we were assessing the public health risk from the [original] virus.’

However, he added: ‘We’ve reached the position now where the Joint Biosecurity Centre can’t give live scientific updates to predict which countries or regions may originate new variants.’

It comes as aviation bosses warn the industry ‘urgently’ needs help to survive after the Prime Minister said yesterday that from 4am on Monday all travel corridors will be suspended and anyone coming to the UK must have proof of a negative test in the previous 72 hours.

Even then people will still have to isolate for 10 days – or five if they have another negative result during that period. 

 

Meanwhile, Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, warned there will be many more variants this year, but the current vaccines should protect against the strains circulating in the UK.

‘As we look forward through 2021, we’re going to see lots of new variants and we’re going to have to get used to that,’ he said.

‘But the critical question is whether some of these new variants are adapting because of immunity amongst human populations – whether that is because of infection… or indeed as a result of vaccination.’ 

But he said that new variants were being detected early, and stressed: ‘If indeed we do need to make new vaccines we will be able to stand those up really quickly.’ 

Aviation minister Robert Courts told the same programme the decision to suspend all travel corridors was part of efforts to prevent the spread of exactly this. 

He said allowing people to travel without having to self-isolate was ‘fine back when we were assessing the public health risk from the [original] virus.’

However, he added: ‘We’ve reached the position now where the Joint Biosecurity Centre can’t give live scientific updates to predict which countries or regions may originate new variants.’

It comes as aviation bosses warn the industry ‘urgently’ needs help to survive after the Prime Minister said yesterday that from 4am on Monday all travel corridors will be suspended and anyone coming to the UK must have proof of a negative test in the previous 72 hours.

Even then people will still have to isolate for 10 days – or five if they have another negative result during that period. 

The new regime will be backed by tougher spot checks and will stay in place until at least February 15 as ministers and scientists work out how to manage the threat posed by mutations of the virus.  

Travellers from South America, Portugal, some of central America and South Africa are already barred from coming to the country. 

However, Abta, a trade association of travel agents and tour operators, said the government should provide support ‘as a matter of urgency’ for the jobs and businesses at risk, while the British Airline Pilots’ Association warned the industry would ‘not be there to support the post Covid-19 recovery’ without ‘a clear plan of action and a proper package of support’.

There were also fears from some travel bosses that rarely-used airports might have to be mothballed or given aid to save costs. 

Tim Alderslade, chief executive of trade body Airlines UK, told Today: ‘What we’re saying to the government is clearly this is a national health emergency and ministers need to act to keep the public protected, that’s absolutely right, but what we need is a road map out of this, so when the time is right we can remove these restrictions when it’s safe to do so and start to look ahead to the spring and summer.

‘Easter is the date we’ve got in mind as to when we can have an aviation sector again because if we don’t start to bring in revenue to the sector, we’re going to be in a very difficult place indeed.

‘We’ve now had pretty much 12 months without any revenue coming in which is just not sustainable and airlines are effectively staying in business by taking on billions of pounds of debt which will need to be paid back.

‘The government did give a period of grace before the introduction for pre-departure testing which was supposed to come into effect yesterday but has been pushed back to 4am on Monday to allow a few days to get these flights back home.

‘But in terms of the volume of flights airlines are operating we’re talking about less than 10% based on where we would normally be and in terms of long haul flying for places like South America where there are flights a huge number of those are freight only. 

‘Cargo has been the saving grace for the sector over the last 10 months so a number of airlines have increased the number of cargo flights to bring in some much-needed revenue to the sector.’

Mr Courts said the steps had been taken to prevent the variants from arriving and spreading in the UK and that there were now a ‘robust’ set of measures lined up.

Elsewhere, a World Health Organisation spokeswoman said today that public health measures such as social distancing are working to stop the transmission of new strains of coronavirus, but ‘we have to do them better’.

Dr Margaret Harris told the BBC: ‘The thing we’re seeing with quite a few of the different strains that have been identified in different countries is they’re not proving more dangerous in terms of making you sicker, but they are more efficient at transmitting.

‘The public health measures that we know work: the distancing, not gathering in large numbers, understanding who has the virus and who has not, keeping the two apart, all those measures do work.

‘They work over and over again in a number of countries, so we have to do them better.

‘Some of the actions at the borders, like testing people, quarantining people, understanding where they’re coming from, are all part of ensuring who has the virus, who has not and keeping them apart.’ 

Professor Chris Whitty today said supplies are ‘limiting’ UK’s jab roll-out

Britain is already leading the continent with 3.3million people vaccinated – one in 20 – and a million immunised in just five days, but officials insist the programme could go even faster if there were enough supplies to keep it running.

Countries in the EU have criticised Pfizer for shrinking its deliveries as it emerged Norway would get a batch 18 per cent smaller than expected next week.

The UK is already stretching Pfizer’s jabs – which have to be kept in specialist freezers at below 70°C – as far as they will go, stretching the gap between doses from three to 12 or more weeks and using thinner needles to reduce wastage and squeeze more doses out of the vials.

Pfizer is based in the US and developed the vaccine with German firm BioNTech. They manufacture Europe’s supplies at a facility in Belgium.

The German health ministry revealed yesterday that its supplies were being delayed.

The ministry said: ‘At short notice, the EU Commission and, via it, the EU member states, were informed that Pfizer will not be able to fully meet the already promised delivery volume for the next three to four weeks due to modifications at the plant.’

Pfizer expects to have finished the work on its Belgian factory by mid-February, reported news website ENCA.

Germany, Norway, Spain, Denmark, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland and Sweden were among the countries expecting deliveries.

In a letter to the European Commission, leaders from some of those countries described the delay as ‘unacceptable’, the Financial Times reported.

‘Not only does it impact the planned vaccination schedules,’ they wrote. ‘It also decreases the credibility of the vaccination process’. 

Britain has now officially left the EU so it is not involved in the European Commission complaint, but the company told the FT Britain’s supply would also be affected.

They said: ‘Although this will temporarily impact shipments in late January to early February, it will provide a significant increase in doses available for patients in late February and March.’ 

A Pfizer Denmark spokesperson told the Associated Press: ‘This temporary reduction will affect all European countries’. 

Boris Johnson and his vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi this week repeatedly refused to be drawn on putting numbers on Britain’s deliveries, claiming it was a matter of national security because ‘the whole world is looking to acquire vaccines at the moment’

The UK has ordered 40million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine, alongside 100million of one made by Oxford University and AstraZeneca – those are the only two approved.

Although Britain’s vaccination programme is hurtling forward and now immunising more than 250,000 people per day, pressure is growing on the Government to hurry it up even more.

The NHS looks on target to hit the 13.9million most vulnerable people by mid-February, but lockdown rules will likely have to remain until significantly more people – potentially everyone over the age of 50, around half the population – has been reached.

Officials say the ‘rate-limiting factor’ of the vaccine roll-out is not how quickly the NHS can use up the supplies but how quickly they’re coming in.

Professor Chris Whitty said in a Downing Street press conference yesterday: ‘The thing which is limiting us at the moment is not the capacity of the NHS to deliver, it is the vaccines delivered.

‘That is true across Europe, that is true across the world, and it’s something which all of us need to do is to make sure we use the vaccines we’ve got as efficiently as possible.’ 

MEDICS USING NARROWER NEEDLES TO SQUEEZE MORE VACCINE DOSES OUT OF VIALS 

An extra dose of the coronavirus vaccine can be extracted when narrow needles are used, Dr Mary Ramsay said. Above is a low dead space needle (left) and a high dead space needle (right). It isn’t clear whether these are the needles being used by the NHS

Medics giving out coronavirus vaccines are using smaller needles to squeeze more doses out of the vials, experts say.

Using needles that are narrower and have less space between the end of the syringe plunger and the start of the needle – known as dead space – can reduce wastage of the vaccine.

The needles contain up to a fifth less dead space and can save so much vaccine fluid over the course of a vial that an extra dose can be drawn out of it.

Dr Mary Ramsay, head of immunisations at Public Health England (PHE), revealed in a meeting of Parliament’s Science and Technology Committee that it was being done. 

She said an extra dose could be removed from both the Pfizer/BioNTech vials, which come in five doses, and the Oxford/AstraZeneca ones, which come in eights or 10s. 

It could give a significant boost to the UK’s supplies, meaning more Britons could be vaccinated with each delivery.

In a batch of five-dose vials intended for 1,000 people, for example, getting an extra dose out of each one could stretch to immunise 200 more people.

Bosses at AstraZeneca, appearing in the same committee, said they didn’t take issue with the practice but that vaccinators must always use a full dose and must never make one up using scraps from different vials. 

It is not clear how many centres are already using the narrower needles. Although Dr Ramsay said they have been used since the start of the roll out. 

It comes after it was revealed a sixth or seventh dose could be extracted from vials of the Pfizer vaccine, because of extra fluid put in by manufacturers.

They said this had been put in to protect against spillages and fluid getting stuck in the syringe, but if these are reduced more doses can be removed.

Rishi Sunak rejects wealth tax: Chancellor WON’T bring in a one-off levy to cover the £280billion spent fighting coronavirus

Rishi Sunak has rejected a proposal for an emergency wealth tax to recover the staggering £280billion the Government has spent so far on the coronavirus pandemic.

The Chancellor was presented with plans for a one-off levy on those with assets of more than £500,000, or £1million for a couple, including their family home and pension.

But Mr Sunak has told allies that he has ruled out the suggestion because he believes it would be ‘un-Conservative’ and go against the party’s aspirational values. However, he is still considering proposals to raise tens of billions from the better-off by sharply hiking capital gains tax.

The Wealth Tax Commission last month proposed a 5 per cent levy on housing, pension, business, equity and savings wealth that it forecast would raise £260billion. 

The tax would apply to every UK resident with assets of £500,000 or more and would include homes excluding mortgage debt.

About one in six adults – 8.2million people – would be liable, but the tax would largely fall on older generations who have paid off more of their mortgages and built up larger pension pots.  

Almost 40 per would be aged over 65, while just 6 per cent would be between 35 and 44 years old. The Commission recommended households pay the levy at a rate of 1 per cent a year for five years.

It estimated up to 10 per cent of those affected would be ‘asset-rich, cash poor’ and not have the ready money to pay for it. For those people, it suggested smaller payments for a longer period.

Lord O’Donnell, a former head of the Civil Service, said in the report’s introduction: ‘It is broadly accepted that if the Prime Minister is to stand by his promise not to return to austerity then taxes will eventually have to rise. 

‘This will mean breaking another manifesto commitment. Or it means thinking seriously about new taxes.’ 

It comes as  Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance sounded a tone of optimism amid signs the UK’s Covid resurgence is finally coming under control and as one in 20 people in Britain have been vaccinated.

Speaking in a Downing Street briefing, chief medical officer Professor Whitty said coronavirus infections were ‘levelling off’ thanks to the ‘enormous efforts’ of Britons following lockdown rules since they began this month.

He said hospital admissions and death counts would continue to rise into next week at least, because of how long it takes people to fall seriously ill or die, but that data suggests even the new super-infectious variant is coming under control.

A total of 3,234,946 people across the UK have now had the first dose of a Covid vaccine and the number of positive tests announced – 55,761 – was 18 per cent lower than last Friday. Daily deaths were also down slightly on last week, at 1,280. 

Speaking about lockdown working even on the fast-spreading variant that emerged in Kent and now accounts for a majority of all cases in the UK, Professor Whitty said: ‘We were not sure this was going to be possible with this new variant, but this demonstrates with the actions everyone has taken we are now slowing this right down and we are hoping that in due course it will start to drop.’  

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has rejected a proposal for an emergency wealth tax to recover the £280billion the Government has spent so far on the coronavirus pandemic 

SAGE published its weekly estimates of the R rate (illustrated in black) and the daily growth rate (illustrated in red) across the country and said the rate of spread appears to be coming down in regions that have been in lockdown since they were put in Tier 4 in December – London, the East and the South East. An R number between 1.2 and 1.3 means that, on average, every 10 people infected will infect between 12 and 13 other people. A growth rate of between +2% and +5% means that the number of new infections is growing by between 2% and 5% every day 

‘Covid hole in economy is much smaller than feared’

The economy fared much better than expected during the November lockdown, triggering predictions that a ‘vigorous rebound’ is on the cards.

Output, or gross domestic product, contracted by 2.6 per cent in November, the Office for National Statistics said.

This would still be a large fall during normal times, but is much smaller than the predictions of 5 per cent.

And while it was the first time the economy had shrunk since April in the depths of the first lockdown, November’s decline was a fraction of the 18.8 per cent slump recorded that month. At the end of November, the economy was 8.5 per cent smaller than its pre-virus size. Ruth Gregory, an economist at consultancy Capital Economics, said the ‘Covid-19 economic hole’ is now ‘far smaller’ than anticipated.

She said GDP could return to its pre-virus as soon as the first quarter of 2022, and that even late this year is ‘plausible’.

Dean Turner, an economist at the wealth management arm of banking giant UBS, said that businesses were now more resilient to lockdowns, adding: ‘We remain confident that pent-up demand will drive a vigorous rebound as restrictions are eased, most likely from the second quarter onwards.’ 

Lord O’Donnell argued that governments have made ‘radical changes to taxes when there has been public understanding that change is needed’. 

Public sector debt is now £2trillion-plus, more than the value of the whole economy, and from April to November the Government borrowed £284.7billion to cover the gap between spending and revenue.

This is three times the previous high since comparable records began in 1984.

Other ideas thought to be under consideration by Mr Sunak, who will present the next Budget in March, include raising capital gains tax (CGT).

CGT is charged on the profits made from selling investments not held in a tax-free account such as an ISA.

Entrepreneurs often pay it when they sell a stake in their business to expand it, or pass it on to new owners. 

It is charged on profits of more than £12,300 at ten per cent or 20 per cent depending on the seller’s overall income.

The Office for Tax Simplification has suggested cutting the tax-free sum and aligning CGT rates with income tax bands of 20, 40 and 45 per cent.

The Institute for Public Policy Research think-tank estimates that this could raise an extra £90billion over five years.

But entrepreneurs have argued that the UK could lose much more in the long term as businessmen take their ideas overseas.

There have also been calls for the stamp duty holiday to be extended beyond its deadline of March 31.

But a Treasury source said: ‘The Chancellor announced this as a time-limited stimulus. There is no point in doing something time-limited if you extend it.’ 

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson praised the public’s efforts at following lockdown rules and appealed for people not to weaken, saying they must ‘think twice’ before leaving the house. ‘This is not the time for the slightest relaxation of our national resolve and our individual efforts,’ he said. ‘So please stay at home, please protect the NHS and save lives.’

Professor Whitty said that the NHS is still under ‘extraordinary’ pressure but he believed the peak of infections had already happened in much of the country and hospitalisations could top out in the next week to 10 days in most places.

‘The peak of deaths, I fear, is in the future,’ he said. ‘The peak of hospitalisations in some parts of the country may be around about now and beginning to come off the very, very top.’

‘Because people are sticking so well to the guidelines we do think the peaks are coming over the next week to 10 days for most places in terms of new people into hospital.’

Sir Patrick also sounded a positive note about the direction of travel, but added that the measures in place were the only thing holding the disease back: ‘Take the lid off now this is going to boil over for sure.’ 

The big policy announcement for the PM’s appearance was that, from Monday, all arrivals to the UK from abroad will have to test negative and isolate for 10 days when they get here, regardless of where they come from. 

Amid fears over new mutant strains coming into the country, triggered by the discovery of a worrying variant from Brazil in travellers in Japan, he said that from 4am Monday all travel corridors will be suspended and anyone coming to the UK must have proof of a negative test in the previous 72 hours.

Even then people must still isolate for 10 days – or five if they have another negative result during that period.

The new regime will be backed by tougher spot checks and stay in place until at least February 15 as ministers and scientists work out how to manage the threat posed by mutations. It was revealed that 11 people in Britain have been diagnosed with one of the variants that have sprung up in Brazil, although it is thought to be the milder of the two and it’s not clear how much of a threat it poses.   

The Prime Minister is facing demands to take advantage of the space created by the tough restrictions to push ahead on vaccinations as figures showed the number of jabs being administered rocketing to 320,000 a day. Almost 3.7million doses have been given out. 

Giving cautious reasons to be hopeful, Professor Whitty said it appeared that infections were ‘levelling off’ in some parts of the country, particularly those that were in Tier 4 lockdowns before Christmas – namely London, the South East and the East of England.

But he said the number of people testing positive for the disease is ‘still extremely high’.

He said it is ‘very likely’ that the situation will improve by the spring but cautioned that life would not go back to how it was before the pandemic.

‘What no-one thinks is that suddenly in spring it is all over and that is the whole thing done. What we expect is things to be substantially better than they are at the moment,’ Professor Whitty said.

‘The hope is that is a kind of reasonable timeframe to be thinking about. But if we try to put a hard stop on this we will be caught out by events.

‘But I think that broad time-frame still feels to me a reasonable one, provided what we are not expecting is completely back to two springs ago.’

Hopes the peak of the second wave has finally passed have grown after a raft of official data and scientific estimates offered the strongest evidence yet that restrictions are tackling the mutant strain.

SAGE said that the R number is between 1.2 and 1.3 – down from 1.4 last week – and the growth rate was between 2 per cent and 5 per cent a day. However, the group stressed that the data represent the average situation over the past few weeks, rather than the present state of play, with daily cases steadily falling. 

Cambridge University researchers have said they believe R is below 1 in the East of England, London, the South East, West Midlands and Yorkshire and the Humber. 

Public Health England revealed yesterday that weekly Covid cases fell in every age group except the over-80s, while Department of Health figures showed dozens of boroughs saw a drop in infection rates.

Mr Johnson has shelved the idea of toughening lockdown for now, after days of swirling rumours that non-essential click and collect and exercising with a friend could be banned in England. 

But despite the optimism over the vaccine rollout there are still huge challenges, with new figures showing the economy is on track for a double-dip recession. GDP was down 2.6 per cent during the looser national lockdown in November. 

Above is the case rates by age groups in the UK. The highest levels are in the 20-29 and 30-39 age groups, data from the ZOE Covid-19 study shows

Boris Johnson speaks with the CEO of Pfizer, Albert Bourle and his team by video link in Downing Street yesterday

The latest PHE surveillance update shows an improvement in the outbreak in the week up to January 10

Tory MPs in London and mayor Sadiq Khan are also angry that the capital seems to be lagging behind in the vaccine drive. 

It also emerged that a Brazilian coronavirus variant that experts fear could make vaccines less effective may have first emerged in Britain in November. Labour accused No10 of ‘putting lives at risk’ by being too slow to close the borders.   

The NHS is expected to remain under huge strain for months to come, as the trend in hospital admissions and deaths lags weeks behind cases. 

And Mr Johnson is still facing calls from experts to tighten the controls. 

Shadow health secretary Jon Ashworth said last night that he believes the mid-February target for vaccinations will be met and should be raised.

‘Everyone I’ve spoken to who understands what’s happening with vaccination seems to think they will meet this target,’ he told BBC Question Time.

‘So I think they will meet that target, but they need to go further and faster. Because if we were able to vaccinate just under 30 million people, we would reduce hospitalisations and deaths by 99 per cent, and we should be targeting that now.’ 

Modelling by Cambridge scientists — whose warnings of 4,000 deaths a day spooked No10 into imposing England’s second lockdown — bolstered claims that the original restrictions were working. 

The team said cases began to drop on December 21 and that the ban on Christmas mixing in the worst-hit areas worked to cut the spread. 

The experts – who believe deaths will peak ‘over the coming days’ – also put the UK’s R-number at now less than one, despite the latest official Government estimate issued last week claiming it was between one and 1.4.

The powerful Covid O Cabinet committee met yesterday to consider the state of play, including signing off a travel ban from South America due to fears over an emerging super-strain in Brazil. However, it did not ramp up the lockdown in England.

Ministers are instead focusing on improving compliance, with an ad campaign delivering alarming messages such as: ‘Don’t let a coffee cost lives.’

Professor Andrew Hayward, director of the University College London (UCL) Institute of Epidemiology and Health Care and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said last week’s data on cases ‘probably relates to the lockdown measures’.

But he told Times Radio: ‘My concern is that what we’ve really got going on here is we’ve more or less split the population in two – those who can afford to stay at home and work and those who can’t.

‘I suspect what we’re really seeing is a very fast decline in those who are staying at home, and either a levelling off or potentially even a continuing increase in those who are continuing to work.’

He said the national picture was also being impacted by the two different strains of the virus.

He added that ‘what concerns me’ is there is more activity than in the first lockdown, with three times as many people now using the London Underground and twice as many people using cars and buses.

Sunak warns of ‘harder’ times to come with UK on track for double-dip recession despite GDP only falling 2.6 per cent during coronavirus lockdown in November 

Rishi Sunak warned things will ‘get harder before they get better’ as figures showed the UK is on track for another recession, with GDP tumbling by 2.6 per cent amid the second Covid lockdown in November.

Restrictions in force in all four UK nations sparked another slump in activity after six months of improvement following the emergence of the disease. 

The impact was far more limited than many analysts feared as firms managed to find ways of working around the curbs. But it means the economy was still 8.5 per cent smaller in November than in February. 

Business groups warned that any December rally will have been smothered by the harsh ‘tier’ controls in England, and a double-dip recession now looks ‘inevitable’ with the new even tougher draconian to tackle mutant Covid.

Mr Sunak said it was ‘clear things will get harder before they get better and figures highlight the scale of the challenge we face’.

However, he said the vaccine drive offered hope for recovery, and the Treasury was ready to support people hit by the crisis. 

Asked if further lockdown measures were necessary, he said: ‘I do’, adding it needed to be possible for ‘those people who can’t afford to work from home to work from home with the right financial packages to support that’.

Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter of the Statistical Laboratory at Cambridge University has said coronavirus deaths are likely to peak in the next week to 10 days.

Sir David said the lockdown measures were having an impact, with the peak in infections having passed ‘a good few days ago’ which would lead to a reduction in the numbers dying from the disease.

‘They are likely to level off in a week – 10 days maybe – at a peak which is probably going to be bigger than the first wave peak of 1,000-a-day, but then should decline due the reductions in cases that we are seeing and, of course, the vaccine programme,’ he told BBC Radio 4’s The World At One.

He warned, however, that hospital admissions would fall more slowly.

While the Government’s plan to vaccinate all over-70s and the clinically extremely vulnerable by mid-February covered around 90 per cent of those dying from the disease, he said only 55 per cent of those being admitted to hospital and 25 per cent of those in intensive care were over 70.

‘We are going to see the reduction in hospitalisations and in particular in intensive care is going to be a lot slower,’ Sir David said.

In accordance Mr Johnson’s new travel rules travellers from South America, Portugal, some of central America and South Africa are already barred from coming to the country. 

Mr Johnson said: ‘It’s precisely because we have the hope of that vaccine and the risk of new strains coming from overseas that we must take additional steps now to stop those strains from entering the country.   

Earlier, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps defended the timing of the South America border ban amid complaints ministers have been ‘behind the curve’ responding to the threat of new Covid variants.

The ban, also covers the Central American state of Panama and Portugal – due to its strong travel links with Brazil – and the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde.

It applies to everyone who has been in the area over the past 10 days – although UK and Irish nationals are exempt – and came into force at 4am.

Scientists analysing the Brazilian variant believe the mutations it shares with the new South African strain are associated with a rapid increase in cases in locations where there have already been large outbreaks of the disease.

British and Irish nationals and others with residence rights are exempted from the measures that were backed by the Scottish and Welsh governments, though they must self-isolate for 10 days along with their households on their return.

Mr Shapps described the ban as a ‘precautionary’ measure to ensure the vaccination programme rolling out across the UK was not disrupted by new variants of the virus.

Asked if the Brazilian strain was currently in the country, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘Not as far as we are aware, I think, at this stage.

‘There haven’t been any flights that I can see from the last week from Brazil, for example.’

Dr Mike Tildesley, an epidemiologist who advises the Government on its scientific pandemic influenza group on modelling group, said the UK was late in imposing the travel ban but that it should minimise the risk from the ‘more transmissible’ variant.

‘We always have this issue with travel bans of course, that we’re always a little bit behind the curve,’ he told BBC Breakfast.

Tories voiced concerns about the vaccination drive in London, after Mr Khan yesterday complained about a lack of supplies. 

Only two per cent of people in the capital were vaccinated against coronavirus by January 10, compared to five per cent in the North East and Yorkshire. Fewer than 30 per cent of London’s over-80s have had the one dose of the vaccine — compared to the highest figure of 43.8 per cent in the North East and Yorkshire.

The first regional breakdown showed the Midlands had vaccinated the most people against the disease, managing to get first doses to 387,647 in the first month of the roll-out. This was more than double the 186,291 in the East of England and almost twice as many as London’s 199,986.

London has accounted for only 10 per cent of the country’s vaccinations so far despite being home to 16 per cent of the population with some nine million people. The capital and the East are the only regions where the share of vaccines has been smaller than the share of the population. 

NHS leaders in the capital insist that London ‘is getting its fair share of vaccine supply’ and added: ‘We have more than 100 vaccination sites up and running across London, including the NHS Covid-19 vaccination centre in the ExCeL London, and more are opening all the time.’

But Tory MP for Wimbledon Stephen Hammond told MailOnline he was ‘concerned’ about the low vaccination rates – and said the capital needed to be ‘prioritised’ because people lived more closely together. 

‘I want to make sure London is not left behind. I think they mayor has been rather slow on this,’ the former health minister said.

‘We need to make sure that London is getting the same share of vaccine as the rest of the country, and probably needs slightly higher priority because of the more dense living in London and that’s where some of the more vulnerable rates have been in the second outbreak.’ 

Other senior Conservatives said they were seeking urgent clarification from ministers on why the numbers were ‘very low’.  

Leaked Government targets show that officials are planning to double the number of people protected against Covid next week alone, aiming to hit 500,000 jabs per day and add 3.6million people to the current total 2.6m. Data yesterday suggested that 223,726 jabs were done on Monday, showing the programme is expanding fast.    

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