Hopes that Covid restrictions could be eased for Christmas grow as ‘R’ rate falls

Christmas could still be saved, with Government scientists believing the coronavirus ‘R’ rate will soon be below one – allowing for "limited loosening" of social distancing rules over the festive period.

The latest estimate from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) suggests the reproduction number is now between one and 1.2, and may even be below one in some areas.

Surveillance figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) also show that the rate of increase is slowing, with cases rising just 5.7 per cent in the week to November 6, compared to around 30 per cent in October.

Katherine Kent, the co-head of analysis for the ONS Covid-19 Infection Survey, said: "In general, across the UK we are seeing slower increases in the number of people with Covid-19." 

Covid cases are now doubling every 28 to 63 days, compared with every 14 days at the end of October.

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A new Sage paper released on Friday, setting out "scenarios for the coming months" shows that when the pandemic became "low and controlled" there would be "greater potential for loosening of social distancing rules for a limited period of time" at Christmas.

Government scientists believe the country is currently in a "high and controlled" state but could soon move into the lower category, allowing for relaxation of some restrictions over the festive period. 

One source close to the Government said: "There’s no doubt things are coming down. The number of new cases is around 55,000, so that’s pretty flat and there is quite a long doubling time now. So it’s flattened off.

"In some places the ‘R’ rates are maybe below one across the UK, particularly in Wales, and maybe in Scotland, and in one or two places across England. With the measures in place we would expect to see them coming down further over the next couple of weeks. The Government obviously has got an ambition to try and be able to relax a bit over Christmas.

"At the moment we’re probably ‘high and controlled, but you would hope that with the measures in place now, it would be coming down."

The optimistic outlook comes in spite of a rise in cases which saw infections hit more than 33,000 on Thursday – the highest figure on record and a jump of more than 10,000 in one day.

However both the King’s College symptom tracker app, and Imperial’s React surveillance study show that case rates are starting to slow. King’s said the ‘R’ rate in Britain is now below one, at 0.9, with new daily symptomatic cases falling from around 42,000 to 36,000 last week. 

Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s, believes cases peaked at the end of October, although there is likely to be a lag between infections and test results.

"According to our data, the ‘R’ value for all the regions of the UK is now below one, which means that the number of daily new cases is declining as each infected case is infecting less than one new person," he said. "The data shows that the second wave peaked at the end of October when it was 1.1."

A Government source said the surveillance data was likely to be more accurate than the daily testing figure, but warned that people would need to maintain social distancing once lockdown was released in order to avoid more measures being imposed over the festive season.

"Testing is highly dependent on who turns up for testing, and the number of tests available, so the data of the number of cases picked up through test and trace will always be slightly less reliable than the numbers that are projected from ONS and and React studies," said the source.

"So it’s headed in the right direction, but it’s absolutely the case that if December comes and everybody goes back to full mixing in fully open environments everywhere, and everyone’s back in the office, then things will increase again."

The new batch of Sage papers also warns that a high number of hospital-acquired infections may have prolonged the first wave. Although infections caught in hospitals made up just one per cent of all cases, Sage said that would have had a higher impact on mortality rates because patients were an older and more vulnerable population.

A paper detailing the number of deaths from hospital-acquired infections is due to be published shortly.