Just one in around 600 people in England had coronavirus last week as shops, beer gardens and hairdressers reopened, official figures suggest, but the R rate has risen slightly.
The Office for National Statistics estimated 90,000 people had the virus in the week to April 16, the equivalent of one in 620, down by a fifth from the 112,600 the previous week.
It marked the first time weekly infections have fallen below 100,000 since the week ending September 10.
And No10’s top scientists predicted England’s R rate had risen slightly from a range of 0.7 to 1.0 last week, to 0.8 to 1.0 this week.
But experts said when cases are so low even small clusters can push it up, and one senior SAGE source added that it was becoming a ‘progressively unreliable’ source because of low infection numbers.
Government officials said it was still too early to tell whether the easing of restrictions on April 12 had an effect on the outbreak, because the latest cases estimates include only four days of freedom.
But there is no sign in the Department of Health’s daily figures that there has been an uptick.
The R rate also lags by about three weeks behind the current situation, meaning it cannot take account of the recent loosening of some restrictions.
Analysis by MailOnline today revealed just six per cent of beds are taken up by Covid patients at England’s busiest hospital. For comparison, in the darkest days of January the worst-hit had almost 60 per cent of its patients suffering from the disease.
Professor Karol Sikora, an expert in medicine at Buckingham University, told MailOnline the figures suggested the Prime Minister should bring forward his dates for relaxing restriction. The next easing isn’t expected until May 17.
And Professor Tim Spector, a top epidemiologist who leads a symptom-tracking app, added promising data suggests tight curbs on visiting care homes – where only two named visitors are allowed – should be slackened.
He added that restrictions could also be eased faster in the South of England, where cases are lower compared to the rest of the country.
Boris Johnson reopened pubs and restaurants for outdoor service, and allowed shops and hairdressers to again welcome customers on April 12. Above are revellers drinking in London on Friday, April 16
COVID VACCINES WILL REMOVE THE NEED FOR FUTURE LOCKDOWNS, SAY SCIENTISTS
Vaccines will allow us to control coronavirus without the need for future lockdowns, the experts behind a major new British study declared last night.
In the biggest examination of ‘real-world’ UK vaccination data so far, scientists found both the Pfizer and Oxford jabs slashed infections – and reduced transmission of the virus.
Analysis of more than 1.6million swabs from UK households found that among those who had been given at least one dose of either vaccine there was a 74 per cent drop in symptomatic infections.
Crucially, the jabs also cut asymptomatic cases – where the person infected has no signs of illness – by more than 50 per cent. This is critical to stopping people unwittingly spreading Covid.
The benefits in reducing infections were similar for everyone – including the elderly and those with long-term health conditions – who are most at risk.
The protective effect was most marked among those who’d had two doses of Pfizer – which led a 70 per cent drop in asymptomatic infections, rising to 90 per cent in cases with symptoms. Similar data was not yet available for the Oxford jab.
The ONS infection survey is seen as the gold-standard for tracking the outbreak by ministers, because it relies on random swabbing of more than 100,000 Britons.
This means it is able to pick up cases among people who are unlikely to get tested because they don’t want to self-isolate, and asymptomatic infections – which trigger no warning signs – thought to make up a third of all cases.
Results showed Covid cases also dropped in Northern Ireland – where one in 660 have Covid – and Scotland – one in 560. But they ticked up slightly in Wales to one in 840, although this was still the lowest level in the UK.
Over-70s had the fewest Covid cases in England, ONS figures suggested, after they were all offered at least one dose of the vaccine. Their positivity rate – proportion of swabs that picked up the virus – was 0.06 per cent.
Those aged 50 to 69 had the second-lowest rate, at 0.12 per cent, after almost everyone in the group was also offered the jabs. Only Scotland is still mopping up over-50s.
Children aged 12 to 16 years had the highest Covid positivity rate, at 0.30 per cent, but this was still a drop from previous weeks.
Cases among this age group rose after schools were reopened to all age groups, but have since also started to drop after pupils were asked to self-test every week to root out cases of the virus.
Across England’s region, cases were estimated to have dropped in the North East, North West, Yorkshire and the Humber, East Midlands and London.
The South West still had the lowest infection rate at around one in 1,540 people carrying the virus.
And the North West had the highest proportion of people infected, at one in 370.
Analysis of the latest NHS statistics by MailOnline showed just 19 beds – or 6.4 per cent – at Hillingdon Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust were taken up by people suffering from Covid in the week to April 13.
For comparison, Covid occupancy rates breached 60 per cent at England’s then-busiest trust – Whittington Health in London – during the darkest days of January.
Almost every hospital in England now has fewer than five per cent of its beds occupied by Covid patients, the latest figures show, and none had more than seven per cent of capacity designated to the virus.
But a whopping 106 hospitals – 84 per cent – had more than five per cent of their patients suffering from Covid in the week ending January 12, at the peak of the second wave.
Experts said it would be ‘crazy’ not to relax more restrictions soon now that hospitalisation figures are so low.
Professor Sikora, from the University of Buckingham, told MailOnline: ‘It’s just crazy. There’s no science behind any of it.’ He said hospital admissions were ‘the only statistic that mattered’ now that the vaccines have been rolled out to the vulnerable.
Professor Spector, an epidemiologist at King’s College London, told MailOnline: ‘Personally, I would like to see restrictions in care homes, where residents have been fully vaccinated, lifted as soon as possible to stop further suffering for those who haven’t been able to see their families for more than a year.
‘Also, the Government could be looking at easing restrictions in parts of the country that have low infection rates like the South West and South East, as in these places there is limited risk right now.’
Mr Johnson’s roadmap reopened pubs, restaurants and cafes for outdoor service, and allowed shops, gyms and hairdressers to raise their shutters again last Monday.
But it will not restart indoor hospitality, or allow foreign holidays, until May 17 at the earliest.
It came as the chief scientist behind a study today showing the Pfizer and AstraZeneca vaccine are slashing infection rates said Britain had ‘moved from a pandemic to an endemic situation’.
Sarah Walker, professor of medical statistics and epidemiology at Oxford, said the vaccines were working so well that long-term lockdowns were not necessary.
Data shows the jabs are reducing hospitalisations and deaths in Britain by more than 80 per cent, according to Public Health England’s own real-world analysis.