COVID infections in the UK drop below a million for first time this year

Matilda Long
·4-min read
A government NHS (National Heath Service) advert displays the face of a Covid patient, urging Londoners to stay at home and not to take risks or bend the rules during the third lockdown of the Coronavirus pandemic, at Piccadilly Circus in the capital's West End, on 3rd February 2021, in London, England. (Photo by Richard Baker / In Pictures via Getty Images)
Infections continue to fall across the UK. (Getty Images)

COVID infections in the UK have dropped below a million for the first time in in 2021, according to the latest data from the Office for National Statistics.

The data comes amid encouraging signs that the third national lockdown is bringing down coronavirus infections.

However, ministers and experts have cautioned against complacency, warning that infections are still at a worrying level.

The latest figures show around one in 65 people had COVID-19 in England between 24 and 30 January – the equivalent of 846,900 people.

In the same time period, around one in 70 people were infected in Wales, one in 65 people were infected in Northern Ireland, and one in 115 were infected in Scotland.

Last week data showed that more than a million people in England alone were infected with coronavirus, amounting to roughly one in 55 people. In London, the figure was estimated to be as high as one in every 35 people.

Infections were still above a million at the turn of the year, with more than 1.2 million estimated to have COVID in the week ending 2 January.

Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, warned on Thursday night that the NHS remains under huge pressure and is operating at “full stretch”.

He called for a cautious approach to relaxing lockdown measures, claiming restrictions were lifted “too early” in 2020.

His comments came after England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty said the country was past the peak of the second wave.

Watch: What are the rules of the current lockdown?

He told a Downing Street briefing on Wednesday: “I think that most of my colleagues think we are past the peak.”

The latest figures are a strong indication that the current measures are succeeding in bringing down rates, despite concerns about the variant that was first found in Kent and appears to be more infectious.

The prime minister has said that the earliest time when rules will be relaxed will be when schools could be reopened from 8 March. He has said other social and economic restrictions will be lifted after that.

When will PM relax rules?

A report in Times today claimed that outdoor socialising and sport could be allowed as soon as March or April.

It said Johnson’s roadmap out of lockdown - which will be published on 22 February - will prioritise open-air contact and will lay out a timetable for when the hospitality sector and shops can reopen.

The slowdown in infections has led to pressure among some of Boris Johnson own MPs that the government should move to lift restrictions sooner rather than later.

Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the influential backbench 1922 Committee, said the country was in a “far more optimistic place”, citing the vaccine rollout.

“We don’t want the Government to be behind the curve if things continue moving as positively and as rapidly as they are, he said. “Now that that threat is receding, we ought to be – and indeed we are, and the Government says we are – looking to open up,” he added.

Scientific advisers have, however, cautioned against opening up too fast.

Professor Graham Medley, chairman of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), said ministers should “make decisions dependent on the circumstances, rather than being driven by a calendar of wanting to do things”.

He was backed by Dr Mike Tildesley, also from Spi-M, who said there needed to be a gradual easing out of lockdown to prevent a resurgence of cases and the need to implement tighter controls.

Dr Tildesley told Times Radio it was important “to avoid a yo-yo situation where we unwrap things too rapidly, we get a resurgence and we have to lock down again”.

He added: “The real concern here and where we really need to be careful is that it all comes down to R number.

“As soon as we start to relax, things go up. The key thing for me is we need to get our children back to school first – that’s clearly the most important thing.

“But I would really encourage it needs to be gradual stepping out of lockdown so that we don’t get a resurgence as we move into the spring.”