PHE chief admits it’s not ‘absolutely clear’ if Kent strain is more deadly

Experts today played down fears a UK variant of the coronavirus is more deadly than the original strain after a ‘scaremongering’ Downing Street press conference last night.

Public Health England medical director Dr Yvonne Doyle said it is not ‘absolutely clear’ if a mutation of the virus first found in Kent is more dangerous.

Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said it is an ‘open question’ but not a ‘game changer’ in terms of dealing with the pandemic.

And Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of SAGE subgroup the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, said it was still too early to be drawing ‘strong conclusions’ about the suggested increased mortality rate.

It comes after a SAGE warning revealing scientists are only 50 per cent sure the variant could be more fatal was handed to ministers just hours before the official address to the public from Downing Street last night.

Ministers were only informed about the development yesterday morning after members of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), a subcommittee of Sage, discussed the issue on Thursday.

The group found there was a ‘realistic possibility’ the variant resulted in an increased risk of death when compared with the original strain.

But evidence for increased mortality remains thin – Nervtag papers reveal the term ‘realistic possibility’ is used when scientists are only 40 to 50 per cent confident something is true.

The paper states ‘it should be noted that the absolute risk of death per infection remains low’. Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said if the evidence is correct it would mean three to four more deaths per 1,000 cases.

Chief Scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance even admitted during the press conference evidence the strain is more deadly is still ‘weak’.

The decision to reveal the new information just hours after learning of the development is a yardstick of how alarmed ministers are.

Critics accused them of ‘scaremongering’ by announcing their fears the Kent strain is more deadly at short notice and without strong supporting evidence.

The gloomy report followed positive news from SAGE that the R rate was between 0.8 and 1 – down from last week when it was between 1.2 and 1.3.

Covid infections are also still falling, down 27 per cent yesterday compared to last week with 40,261 new cases and 1,401 new deaths.

But the Covid Recovery Group of Tory backbenchers and business chiefs are growing increasingly alarmed at suggestions lockdown could stretch well into summer despite Britain’s vaccination programme.

The SAGE paper released last night cited three studies of the risk of death associated with the new strain:

  • A London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine study said the hazard of death within 28 days of a test for the mutant strain compared with non-mutant strains was 1.35 times higher. This was based on a study of 2,583 deaths among 1.2 million tested individuals;
  • An Imperial College London study of the Case Fatality Rate of the new mutant strain found the risk of death was 1.36 times higher. It used mathematical analysis to look at all cases of the new variant but the total number was not revealed in the papers. The SAGE paper said its data is based on just 8 per cent of the total deaths occurring during the study period;
  • A University of Exeter study suggested the risk of death could be 1.91 times higher. This study matched those with the new variant to those of a similar demographic. The SAGE paper did not reveals its sample size, but its analysis was again based on 8 per cent of the total coronavirus deaths during the study period;
  • SAGE admits ‘the results of all studies may not be representative of the total population’;
  • Some of the analysis might be comparing frail elderly people in nursing home outbreaks of the Kent variant, which is more transmissible, with healthier elderly people infected with other strains in the community;
  • An increase in the severity of infection with the variant would likely lead to an increased risk of hospitalisation, which there is currently no evidence of in individuals suffering from the strain;
  • Analysis has not identified an increased risk of death in hospitalised cases of the variant.

The SAGE paper cited three studies of the Kent strain: A London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine study (left) based on 2,583 deaths that said the hazard of death within 28 days of test for the mutant strain compared with non-mutant strains was 35% times higher An Imperial College London study (centre) of the Case Fatality Rate of the new mutant strain that found the risk of death was 36% times higher A University of Exeter study (right) that suggested the risk of death could be 91% higher. Both the Exeter and the Imperial studies were based on just 8% of deaths during the study period

Nervtag concluded there was a 'realistic possibility' - detailed on the yardstick above as a probability between 40 and 50 per cent - that the variant resulted in an increased risk of death when compared with the original strain

Nervtag concluded there was a ‘realistic possibility’ – detailed on the yardstick above as a probability between 40 and 50 per cent – that the variant resulted in an increased risk of death when compared with the original strain

How deadly is the Kent Covid variant? Confusion mounts as scientists offer wildly different estimates 

There was confusion last night about how deadly the Kent coronavirus variant really is after 10 SAGE studies came to wildly different conclusions about its lethality and the World Health Organization said it still hadn’t seen any convincing data.

Boris Johnson and his science chiefs made the shocking claim that the strain — called B.1.1.7 — could be 30 per cent more deadly than older versions of the virus without presenting any evidence to back up the terrifying development.  

The announcement came after 10 studies submitted to SAGE overwhelmingly suggested that the strain was more lethal than past variants. But there are question marks over the findings because the estimates varied vastly and one study even found the strain was less deadly than the older version.

The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine estimated the risk of death from the new variant could be 1.35 times greater, Imperial College London said it was between 1.29 and 1.36 times, Exeter University found it may be 1.91 and Public Health England said it could be as high as 1.6. But there are further questions over the reliablity of the data because the research was only based on a few hundreds deaths. 

Public Health England chief Dr Susan Hopkins cautioned people from reading too much into the findings and suggested the evidence was still murky. She added: ‘There is evidence from some but not all data sources which suggests that the variant of concern which was first detected in the UK may lead to a higher risk of death than the non-variant. Evidence on this variant is still emerging and more work is underway to fully understand how it behaves.’  

Sir Patrick Vallance told the briefing last night that hospital data had suggested the variant could increase the risk of death for a man his 60s from 1 per cent to 1.3 per cent, but he admitted ‘the evidence is not yet strong’. Adding to the confusion, Professor Chris Whitty, said he was not entirely convinced the strain was deadlier in the first place.

And the variant has already been spotted in 60 countries, including most of continental Europe, the US, Australia, India, China and Saudi Arabia – yet none of those countries have reported a higher mortality rate from the new variant. 

Kit Yates, a mathematical biologist at the University of Bath, slammed the Government for causing confusion and panic about the variant. He tweeted: ‘I really dislike the way the news about the increased lethality of B1.1.7 was leaked out and then discussed in a press briefing. Where is the data? We want to be able to scrutinise it and to understand the detail, not just the summary.’

The WHO also undermined No10, saying it had not yet seen any evidence to convince it that the Kent strain was actually more deadly than other strains. In a thinly-veiled jab at the UK Government, the body said it was more likely that the increased death rate was a result of ministers losing a grip on infections.

Dr Mike Ryan, chief of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, told a separate press conference today: ‘There is a big difference between the lethality of a virus, how many people on average a virus kills, versus the mortality. If I have one million people infected and my lethality is 1 per cent, or two million people infected with a lethality of 1 per cent, twice as many people will die [in the second case].’

PHE’s Dr Doyle said it is still not ‘absolutely clear’ the new variant coronavirus which emerged in the UK is more deadly than the original strain. She said more work was needed to determine whether it was true.

She told the Today programme: ‘There are several investigations going on at the moment. It is not absolutely clear that that will be the case. It is too early to say.

‘There is some evidence, but it is very early evidence. It is small numbers of cases and it is far too early to say this will actually happen.’

Meanwhile professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Dr Medley said it is still an ‘open question’.

Prof Medley was co-author of a report by the Government’s New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group. But he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme it was not a ‘game changer’ for dealing with the pandemic.

He said: ‘The question about whether it is more dangerous in terms of mortality I think is still open. There is evidence it is more dangerous but this is a very dangerous virus. In terms of making the situation worse it is not a game changer. It is a very bad thing that is slightly worse.’

Dr Tildesley, a member of Spi-M, said it was still too early to be drawing ‘strong conclusions’ about both the suggested increased mortality rates from the new Covid variant.

He said: ‘I was actually quite surprised the news had been announced at a new conference. It seems to have gone up a little bit from about 10 people per thousand to about 13 which is quite a small rise but it’s based on a relatively small amount of data.

‘I would be wanting to wait for a week or two more, monitoring a little bit more before we draw really strong conclusions about this.’

Speaking on BBC Breakfast he added: ‘I just worry that where we report things pre-emptively where the data are not really particularly strong.’

Professor Peter Horby, who chairs Nervtag, said people needed to put data showing increased mortality rates from the new UK coronavirus variant ‘in perspective’.

He told BBC Breakfast: ‘Initial data didn’t suggest that this was any more serious than the old virus but now the data has started to come in there are a number of streams of data that are coming in that suggest there might be a small increase in risk of death.

‘There are some limitations in the data so we need to be cautious with the interpretations but it is important that people understand that we are looking at this and this may be true.

‘If you look at it as a relative change like 30 or 40% then it sounds really bad but a big change in a very small risk takes it from a very small number to a slightly bigger, but still very small number, so for most people the risk is very, very small.

‘People need to put it into perspective. This is a risk for certain age groups and that risk may have increased but for most people it is still not a serious disease.’

But Prof Horby acknowledged the new data should be taken ‘very seriously’.

He added: ‘This is an unpleasant virus. It’s throwing things at us that are unpleasant and we’re going to have to manage them.’

His comments follow PHE doctor Susan Hopkins, who cautioned people from reading too much into the findings and suggested the evidence was still murky.

She added: ‘There is evidence from some but not all data sources which suggests that the variant of concern which was first detected in the UK may lead to a higher risk of death than the non-variant. Evidence on this variant is still emerging and more work is underway to fully understand how it behaves.’

Kit Yates, a mathematical biologist at the University of Bath, slammed the Government for causing confusion and panic about the variant.

He tweeted: ‘I really dislike the way the news about the increased lethality of B1.1.7 was leaked out and then discussed in a press briefing. Where is the data? We want to be able to scrutinise it and to understand the detail, not just the summary.’

Senior doctors call for gap between first and second doses of the Pfizer vaccine to be HALVED to six weeks

Senior doctors have called for the gap between the first and second doses of Pfizer’s Covid-19 vaccine to be halved to six weeks.

It emerged on Thursday that NHS hospitals could be banned from giving out the jabs if they don’t stick to the strategy of delaying second doses by 12 weeks or longer, despite initial proposals to leave a three-week gap.

But the British Medical Association (BMA) has recommended to cut the waiting time, warning in a letter that the strategy is ‘difficult to justify’ and the UK is ‘internationally isolated’.

The World Health Organization (WHO) previously said governments should be giving people their second dose within 21 to 28 days of having the first, to make sure the vaccine works long-term.

In a private letter to Professor Chris Witty, the BMA indicated that second doses may not be guaranteed following a 12-week gap due to the ‘unpredictability of supplies’, reports the BBC.

Although agreeing that the jab should be ‘rolled as quickly as possible’, the association called for an urgent review of the policy that is ‘proving evermore difficult to justify’.

But the long time lag from infection to hospitalisation means there is not a huge amount of data available on the variant, with Nervtag saying analyses will become more definitive over the coming weeks.

One theory as to why it may be more lethal is the stickiness of the mutation and the way it gets into cells and replicates – a behaviour that also makes the variant more transmissible the Telegraph reports.

Boris Johnson told the Downing Street briefing last night: ‘We’ve been informed that in addition to spreading more quickly it also now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant – first identified in London and the Kent – may be associated with a higher degree of mortality.’

Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance said during the address that even now the science is still at an early stage.

He said: ‘These data are currently uncertain and we don’t have a very good estimate of the precise nature or indeed whether it is an overall increase, but it looks like it is.’

He said for men in their 60s, the average risk was that for every 1,000 who got infected, ten would be expected to die. But with the new variant it might be 13 or 14. That equates to an increased relative risk of 30 to 40 per cent.

Sir Patrick noted estimates vary and stressed some concluded there was no additional risk. But he said his best guess was that deaths increase by about 30 to 40 per cent.

He added: ‘The death rate is awful and it’s going to stay, I’m afraid, high for a little while before it starts coming down – that was always what was predicted from the shape of this.’

Nervtag concluded death rates have not increased among those in hospital. But evidence suggests it raises the risk of being hospitalised in the first place.

In a bid to drive the message home, the public will be faced with a set of hard-hitting new adverts warning people to stay in their houses to try to pressure people into obeying lockdown rules.

With close-ups of frontline medical practitioners and Covid-19 patients’ faces, the advert will ask: ‘Can you look them in the eyes and tell them you’re helping by staying at home?’

The public will be faced with a set of hard-hitting new adverts warning people to stay home as part of a change of tack in the bid to ensure people obey lockdown rules

Nurses claim they are being treated like ‘lambs to the slaughter’ as they call for higher-grade face masks

Nursing leaders have called for higher-grade face masks to be given to staff to protect them against highly transmissible strains of Covid-19.

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and the British Medical Association (BMA) warned that members had raised fears they were being given inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE) in a letter to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).

One nurse described feeling as though staff were being treated like ‘lambs to the slaughter’ due to the inadequacy of surgical masks.

The College is now calling for a review of infection control guidance and calling for all NHS staff to be given the higher grade of PPE as a precaution pending the outcome. 

It wants staff to be given the high-grade face masks used in intensive care units, called FFP2 or FFP3 masks.

Despite acknowledging cases are falling, the Prime Minister – also accompanied by Professor Chris Whitty – decided to hone in on early analysis by the sub-group of SAGE that suggested the Kent mutation was more lethal.

The trio resorted to explaining the risk out loud during the Downing Street press conference, failing to offer any actual proof to back their terrifying claim.

World Health Organization bosses claimed they had seen no evidence on the variant’s lethality during a simultaneous briefing.

Dr Mike Ryan – head of the WHO emergency programme – urged people to ‘remain calm around the issues of these variants’.

He added: ‘There is a big difference between the lethality of a virus, how many people on average a virus kills, versus the morality of the virus. If I have one million people infected and my lethality is 1 per cent, or two million people infected with a lethality of 1 per cent, twice as many people will die.

‘We are not seeing so far, but we will wait to see, that the disease is more lethal. We are seeing that… increasing incidence leads to increasing mortality. If your cases get out of control, your deaths will get out of control as your health system is overwhelmed.’

Professor Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, claimed the findings showed a 60-year-old man faced a 1.3 per cent risk of dying of the Kent Covid variant, compared to the usual 1 per cent. But a 30 per cent increase in the risk of death means 13 out of 1,000 men in their 60s will succumb to the illness, instead of 10. Professor Whitty himself admitted the evidence was ‘not yet strong’.

Data on the lethality of the Kent variant, which has been spotted in 60 countries around the world, was first leaked to the press ahead of Mr Johnson’s TV appearance. ITV’s political editor Robert Peston was told by Professor Neil Ferguson there was a ‘realistic possibility’ the variant was deadlier.

No10 insiders dismissed claims ‘Professor Lockdown’ – the Imperial College London epidemiologist whose grim modelling that hundreds of thousands of Britons could die without action spooked ministers into lockdown last March – had ‘bounced’ the government into revealing NERVTAG’s new evidence.

Has the UK passed the worst of second peak? 

The UK’s R rate has dropped below one in a dramatic sign that the peak could have been passed.

Scientists said the level was down to between 0.8 and 1, compared to 1.2 and 1.3. 

The number represents how many people an infected individual passes the disease on to, and anything below one means the outbreak is shrinking. 

Meanwhile, the Office for National Statistics said the total number of people with coronavirus dropped last week – but there were still more than a million people infected. 

And the symptom-tracking Covid Symptom Study estimates that the number of people developing symptoms each day has halved in a fortnight, down to 34,000 a day from 70,000 on January 8, while official death counts show fatalities appear to be declining in London.

Numbers of people testing positive through NHS Test and Trace have also tumbled for twelve days in a row, with the daily average tumbling from 60,000 on January 10 to 40,000 yesterday. And an array of other data also suggests the epidemic is coming under control, with Public Health England figures showing positive test rates are down in all regions and age groups.

London’s average daily death count fell from 169 to 163 in the most recent four days of data and could be set to fall further as official statistics remain lower than they were at the start of this month. 

Professor Tim Spector, a King’s College London epidemiologist, said yesterday that the ‘signs are hopeful we’re on our way out of this situation’.

But he cautioned the virus is still widespread all over the country, with huge numbers of people infected. NHS hospitals are under immense strain and intensive care wards twice as busy as last year, despite thousands of extra beds. 

The doom-mongering came despite an array of statistics showing the second wave has peaked already and may finally be coming under control.

SAGE yesterday claimed Britain’s R rate has fallen below the crucial level of one and separate surveillance studies estimated daily cases have halved in a fortnight.

Department of Health figures mirrored the trend, with infections falling by 30 per cent week-on-week as health chiefs announced another 40,261 cases. Officials also posted 1,401 deaths, up just 9.5 per cent on last Friday. But experts warned the fatality toll will continue to rise for at least another week because of how long it takes for infected patients to become severely ill.

Defying mounting pressure to commit to easing the current measures, Mr Johnson warned yesterday the NHS is still under huge pressure and the curbs will only be lifted when it is ‘safe’.

The PM even set the scene for tougher restrictions last night, warning: ‘We may need to go further to protect our borders.’ Nicola Sturgeon warned Scotland life may not be ‘back to normal’ by the summer, in another sign the UK will not be freed from the draconian restrictions from mid-February.

The 70-strong Covid Recovery Group of Conservative MPs is urging the government to start lifting the lockdown no later than March 8 – when vaccines given to the most vulnerable groups should have taken effect. But No10’s refusal to give an exact day for when lockdown will end may have been fuelled by the new variant findings.

The variant has already been spotted in 60 countries, including the US, Australia, India, China and Saudi Arabia. But the Government’s top scientific advisers believe the current crop of vaccines will work against the variant – but may be less effective against other South African and Brazilian mutations.

MailOnline also revealed Health Secretary Matt Hancock claimed vaccines may be 50 per cent less effective on the South African variant. He warned allowing the variant to become the dominant strain in the UK could ruin Britain’s vaccination drive – which yesterday saw a record 400,00 doses administered in one day.

And grim figures laying bare the economically-crippling side of lockdown revealed business activity has fallen even more than expected this month, leaving the UK looking down the barrel of a double dip recession. Number 10 borrowed more than £34billion in December – the third highest monthly total ever – as it scrambles to keep millions of jobs and stricken firms afloat while tax revenues dwindle. 

In a dramatic sign that the outbreak could be flattening out, SAGE said the R rate was between 0.8 and 1. That is down sharply from last week, when it was between 1.2 and 1.3

In a dramatic sign that the outbreak could be flattening out, SAGE said the R rate was between 0.8 and 1. That is down sharply from last week, when it was between 1.2 and 1.3

Worrying strains around the world: Since the Covid pandemic began there have been at least six new stains which appear more infectious and have mutations that open the door to vaccine resistance

Worrying strains around the world: Since the Covid pandemic began there have been at least six new stains which appear more infectious and have mutations that open the door to vaccine resistance 

The ONS report said the number of people likely to test positive for coronavirus came down from 1.122million on January 2 to 1.023million on January 16

The ONS report said the number of people likely to test positive for coronavirus came down from 1.122million on January 2 to 1.023million on January 16

Passengers wait at  Heathrow Airport yesterday as ministers mull even tighter rules

Passengers wait at  Heathrow Airport yesterday as ministers mull even tighter rules

The number of people developing Covid-19 every day appears to have halved in a fortnight from 70,000 on January 8 to 34,000 yesterday, according to the Covid Symptom Study, which uses self-reported symptoms through a mobile app used by around a million people

The number of people developing Covid-19 every day appears to have halved in a fortnight from 70,000 on January 8 to 34,000 yesterday, according to the Covid Symptom Study, which uses self-reported symptoms through a mobile app used by around a million people

Grim figures published yesterday showed government borrowing soared to £34.1billion in December - the third highest monthly figure on record - amid growing fears about the UK's debt mountain

Grim figures published yesterday showed government borrowing soared to £34.1billion in December – the third highest monthly figure on record – amid growing fears about the UK’s debt mountain

Closely-watched PMI data for the private sector showed a reading of 40.6 so far in January - with anything blow 50 pointing to a contraction

Closely-watched PMI data for the private sector showed a reading of 40.6 so far in January – with anything blow 50 pointing to a contraction

No10 insiders flatly dismissed the idea Prof Ferguson had been told to brief Peston – and said the suggestion he ‘bounced’ them into the announcement was ‘rubbish’.

Sources suggested Prof Ferguson is on Nervtag and knew the announcement was going to be made.

The Nervtag report with the evidence on lethality is understood to have landed on the PM’s desk yesterday morning, and he was given a ‘detailed briefing’ on the content by Sir Patrick Vallance.

A source said: ‘The PM has always been very clear that we have to be transparent with people about the information we had on the variants. The idea that we could have done the press conference without giving the public the information… would have been the wrong thing to do.’

Tory backbencher Craig Mackinlay told MailOnline some of the scientific warnings were reminiscent of Project Fear and every time there was hope of easing lockdown there was ‘a new twist’.

Matt Hancock claims South African variant may make vaccines 50% less effective 

The mutant South African coronavirus variant may make the current crop of vaccines 50 per cent less effective, Matt Hancock has sensationally claimed.

In footage obtained by MailOnline, the Health Secretary warned allowing the variant to become the dominant strain in the UK could ruin Britain’s vaccination drive and send the country ‘back to square one’.

Mr Hancock is understood to have made the astonishing comments during an online webinar with travel agents this week, to the shock of everyone on the call.

He said there was ‘evidence in the public domain’ that the South African variant reduces vaccine efficacy by ‘about 50 per cent’.  Although he followed up by saying: ‘We are not sure of this data so I wouldn’t say this in public.’

The South African strain — called B.1.351 — has key mutations on its spike protein which scientists fear might make it difficult for the immune system to recognise. 

These alterations open the door to it being resistant to vaccines, which train the body to spot the spike protein, or natural immunity from previous infection.  

It comes after South African scientists found that 48 per cent of blood samples from people who had been infected in the past did not show an immune response to the new variant – raising red flags about possible vaccine resistance. The South African version is also though to be at least 60 per cent more infectious than regular Covid and even more transmissible than the Kent variant that ripped through the UK and plunged England into its third national lockdown. 

The South African strain has already been spotted in the UK 73 times, according to the Covid-19 Genomics Consortium UK (COG-UK). Although it is likely to be far more widespread because COG-UK only analyses 10 per cent of random positive samples. 

He said: ‘It seems to me we are now being held hostage to a zero Covid policy which is completely unattainable – or if you do attain it we are going to be in lockdown for an incredibly long period. That just cannot be.

‘The next thing will be ‘oh dear, this new variant from Timbuktu is not responsive to the vaccine’, or ‘the vaccine doesn’t work against it’.’

The South Thanet MP, a member of the CRG, went on: ‘Because Covid has been with us now for a year it is not at all surprising if the evolution or mutation is going to be towards a different type of which these vaccines can’t work against.

‘That doesn’t matter as such because you then need to formulate a new vaccine. But we are just adding more delay.’

Mr Mackinlay said: ‘There has got to be a time when you have done the elderly, you’ve done the vulnerable… but the words I seem to be hearing is that this lockdown has got no end to it, because there always seems to be a new twist and turn – a reason why it should continue.’

He said: ‘It does seem to me that scientists are in control of this. I know you wouldn’t put an economist in charge of vaccine control, but you wouldn’t put these scientists in charge of the economy.’

Speaking at last night’s Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson said: ‘We’ve been informed that in addition to spreading more quickly it also now appears that there is some evidence that the new variant, the variant that was first identified in London and the South East, may be associated with a higher degree of mortality.’

The PM handed over to his chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick, who added: ‘If you took a man in their 60s, the average risk is that for a thousand people who got infected, roughly 10 would be expected to, unfortunately, die… with the new variant, for a thousand people infected, roughly 13 or 14 people might be expected to die.

‘That’s the sort of change for that sort of age group.’

He added: ‘I want to stress that there’s a lot of uncertainty around these numbers and we need more work to get a precise handle on it, but it obviously is of concern that this has an increase in mortality as well as an increase in transmissibility, as it appears of [yesterday].’

The estimates for R and the growth rate are provided by the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M), a sub-group of Sage.

The growth rate, which estimates how quickly the number of infections is changing day by day, is between minus 4 per cent and minus 1 per cent for the UK as a whole.

It means the number of new infections is shrinking by between 1 per cent and 4 per cent every day.

Scientists advising the Government said all regions of England have seen decreases in the R number and growth rate estimates compared with last week, and R is below or around 1 in every region.

However, they warned that despite the reductions, case levels ‘remain dangerously high and we must remain vigilant to keep this virus under control, to protect the NHS and save lives’.

Sage scientists said: ‘Cases remain dangerously high and we must remain vigilant to keep this virus under control, to protect the NHS and save lives.

‘It is essential that everyone continues to stay at home, whether they have had the vaccine or not.

‘We all need to play our part, and if everyone continues to follow the rules, we can expect to drive down the R number across the country.’

What do we know about the Kent variant? 

Name: B.1.1.7, formerly VUI-202012/01

Where did it come from? The variant was first found in Kent and can be traced back to September 2020. Scientists noticed that it was spreading in November  and it was revealed to the public in December.

What makes it new? The variant, which is a version of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes Covid-19, has a series of mutations that change the shape of the spike protein on its outside. The main one is known as N501Y. This appears to make it better able to stick to the cells inside the body and makes it more likely to cause infection and faster to spread.

How did that happen? Viruses, particularly ones spreading so fast and in such huge numbers, mutate all the time. To reproduce they basically force living cells to copy and paste the viral genetic code, and this can contain errors that lead to slightly different versions of the virus. Often these mutations make no difference but, if they make the virus stronger, they can stick around for further generations and become the norm. 

What can we do about it? Nothing much. People who catch the virus won’t know which type they have, and it will still cause the same symptoms and illness. Officials can try to contain it by locking down the areas where it is most prevalent, but if it is stronger than other versions of the virus it will eventually spread everywhere and become dominant as long as people continue to travel. 

Will it make Covid-19 worse? Scientists aren’t sure whether it affects the severity of the disease. Because it is so new, no official data yet exists to track if it is more deadly. If it is, it may be the first of thousands of mutations since the start of the pandemic to increase the risk of death.

Will our vaccines still work? Yes, it’s very likely they will. Scientists on SAGE are fairly sure the mutations the Kent variant carries do not significantly affect how well the immune system can handle it. People who have a vaccine modelled on an older version of the virus, or who have been infected with Covid-19 before, are likely to be immune to it. This is because the main mutations are only on one part of the spike protein, whereas the immune system is able to target various other parts of the virus. 

Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, from the maths faculty at the University of Cambridge, said the drop in R was ‘very encouraging news’.

He said the decline in positive cases has been slow but cases are ‘nearly half what they were three weeks ago, which is enormously hopeful’.

Sir David told the BBC that, by next month, the UK will start seeing the benefits of the vaccine rollout.

But he also gave a stark vision of the competing concerns that the government is wrestling with. 

‘The one thing I can be absolutely confident about is that, by this time next month, there is going to be the mother of all argument,’ he said.

‘Because it’s quite feasible that deaths will have come down considerably, infections should have come down considerably, hospitalisations and ICU will still be under a lot of pressure.

‘There will be enormous pressure to loosen things up.

‘Loosening it up will inevitably lead to an increase in cases, a resurgence of the pandemic among younger groups, and we can see then that does seep through into hospitalisations.

‘So there’s going to be a real battle going on.’

Hopes have been fuelled the UK might have passed the worst of the second wave, with the Office for National Statistics saying the total number of people with coronavirus dropped last week – but there were still more than a million people infected.

And the symptom-tracking Covid Symptom Study estimates that the number of people developing symptoms each day has halved in a fortnight, down to 34,000 a day from 70,000 on January 8, and that the R rate of the virus in the UK is just 0.8, while official death counts show fatalities appear to be declining in London.

Numbers of people testing positive through NHS Test and Trace have also tumbled for twelve days in a row, with the daily average tumbling from 60,000 on January 10 to 40,000 yesterday, and Public Health England figures show positive test rates were down in all regions and age groups last week.

Professor Tim Spector, a King’s College London epidemiologist, said yesterday the ‘signs are hopeful we’re on our way out of this situation’.

London’s average daily death count fell from 169 to 163 in the most recent four days of data and could be set to fall further as official statistics remain lower than they were at the start of this month.

But he cautioned the virus is still widespread all over the country, with huge numbers of people infected. NHS hospitals are under immense strain and intensive care wards twice as busy as last year, despite thousands of extra beds.

Kent variant timeline  

September 20 – Variant emerges in a chronically ill Covid-19 patient in Kent 

November 6 – Infected person takes the new strain to California  

November 2020 – Spike in cases occurs in Kent and Medway despite national lockdown squashing case numbers in the rest of the country 

November 23 – Air passenger brings new variant to  Florida

December 11 – SAGE tells the Government about the new variant 

December 14 –  Authorities of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland reported to WHO that new SARS-CoV-2 variant was identified through viral genomic sequencing

Matt Hancock tells MPs about the new variant  

December 18 – SAGE tells the Government they are concerned about the new variant and its transmissibility

December 20 – London, South East and East of England go into new Tier 4 restrictions due to spike in cases due to new variant 

December 21 – More than 40 countries halt flights from UK due to new variant 

December 29 – First case is spotted in the US 

All dates are for the year 2020  

More than 20,000 people have died since January 1 and thousands more will die in the coming weeks even with cases continuing to fall because it can take weeks for infected patients to become severely ill. Almost 40,000 Britons are currently in hospital with Covid.

Despite the flattening, the direction of travel in government seems to be towards tightening lockdown even further.

And No10 delivered a rebuke yesterday afternoon to Tory MPs urging the government to release a blueprint for how lockdown will be eased when the first phase of vaccine rollout is complete.

The PM’s spokesman said: ‘It’s important that we continue to monitor the latest situation.

‘You see the latest figures that we publish on a daily basis which clearly show that transmission rates of the virus remain high.

‘The NHS continues to be under pressure and the number of patients admitted to hospital remains at a high level.

‘It’s obviously the case that we want to see the transmission rate of the virus come down and therefore the pressure on the NHS eased.

‘The Prime Minister has been clear that we will lift restrictions as soon as we can but only when it is deemed safe to do so.’

Signs are promising that the vaccine programme is progressing well. 

More than 400,000 Britons were vaccinated against coronavirus on yesterday, official figures show, as the NHS drive to inoculate the most vulnerable continues to gather steam.

Department of Health figures published yesterday reveal 412,615 jabs were carried out on Thursday, marking the third day in a row the scheme has picked up the pace.

The Government is aiming to vaccinate all 15million in the top priority groups – over-70s, NHS staff, vulnerable and care home residents – by mid-February, meaning they will need to get jabs into the arms of 350,000 people a day.

400,000 Britons are vaccinated in record day

More than 400,000 Britons were vaccinated against coronavirus on yesterday, official figures show, as the NHS drive to inoculate the most vulnerable continues to gather steam.

Department of Health figures published yesterday reveal 412,615 jabs were carried out on Thursday, marking the third day in a row the scheme has picked up the pace.

The Government is aiming to vaccinate all 15million in the top priority groups – over-70s, NHS staff, vulnerable and care home residents – by mid-February, meaning they will need to get jabs into the arms of 350,000 people a day.

But the figures show the daily target was exceeded, sparking hopes the Government will make good on its promise which will pile pressure on ministers to end the brutal lockdown sooner.

Overall, more than 5.3million Britons have been vaccinated against the virus since the scheme began.   

In Wales 21,901 jabs were administered yesterday, official figures reveal. The nation has vaccinated 212,700 people in total, including giving 212,317 first doses and 415 second doses.

In Scotland 23,800 jabs were completed bringing its total to 363,143 including 358,000 first doses and 4,600 second doses.

And in Northern Ireland almost 7,000 jabs were done on January 21. In total it has completed 173,500 jabs including 150,000 first doses and 22,510 second doses. 

But the figures show the daily target was exceeded, sparking hopes the Government will make good on its promise which will pile pressure on ministers to end the brutal lockdown sooner.

Overall, more than 5.3million Britons have been vaccinated against the virus since the scheme began.   

In Wales 21,901 jabs were administered yesterday, official figures reveal.

The nation has vaccinated 212,700 people in total, including giving 212,317 first doses and 415 second doses.

In Scotland 23,800 jabs were completed bringing its total to 363,143 including 358,000 first doses and 4,600 second doses.

And in Northern Ireland almost 7,000 jabs were done on January 21. In total it has completed 173,500 jabs including 150,000 first doses and 22,510 second doses.

There were reports ministers are already in talks with hotel chains over plans to force UK arrivals to quarantine at airports.

Travellers could be prevented from using their own accommodation under the proposals being put together by the government. Using GPS tags to ensure compliance is also believed to have been considered.

The draconian ‘quarantine hotel’ system, similar to that used in Australia and New Zealand, is a prospect amid rising fears about the spread of Covid variants around the globe.

Arrivals would potentially have to pay for their stays while they self-isolate for 10 days, or even a fortnight.

The powerful Covid O Cabinet sub-committee is due to discuss the ideas over the coming days – although a final decision is not likely until next week.   

Environment Secretary George has refused to rule out even more drastic action, with foreigners barred from coming to the UK altogether.    

Asked about the possibility in a round of interviews, Mr Eustice told Sky News: ‘We always keep these things under review. And it has been considered.

Boris refuses to rule out tough new border curbs

Boris Johnson set the scene for tougher restrictions on travel into the UK last night as he warned: ‘We may need to go further to protect our borders’.

The Prime Minister refused to rule out tough new measures including enforced quarantine in specially designated hotels as he led a press conference this evening.

Amid fears that a strain of coronavirus that originated in South Africa may be more resistant to vaccines he told the nation making it too easy for it and other variants to enter would under all the hard work put in by locked down Britons.

Desperate wrangling is going on within Cabinet over the shape of the restrictions, set to be finalised at a meeting of the core Covid O sub-committee on Monday.

A range of escalations are being considered to combat the global spread of variants, with a full border closure to foreign nationals still on the table. However, the most likely outcome is a version of the enforced isolation system used by countries such as Australia and New Zealand.

Asked whether new border measures were coming, at the press conference, Mr Johnson said: ‘I really don’t rule it out, we may need to take further measures still.

‘We may need to go further to protect our borders.

‘We don’t want to put that [all the effort to control the virus] at risk by having a new variant come back in.’

‘There is concern at the moment about the number of mutant strains.’

Any new restrictions would be a further blow to the beleaguered travel industry and put the holiday plans of millions at risk.

It comes as Britain’s airports are already struggling to cope with demand, with passengers queuing for hours yesterday to get through passport control at Heathrow as the border situation worsened.

The lines were so long staff were said to have handed out free water to exhausted travellers just hours after the Home Office insisted there were no staffing issues and people were moving through in ‘good time’. 

The proposal to hand out £500 to everyone who tests positive for coronavirus has surfaced amid efforts to increase compliance – with many believed to dodge the rules because they cannot afford to stop working.

Detailed in an official policy paper, it is said to be the ‘preferred position’ of Mr Hancock‘s Department of Health.

Officials fear that too many with Covid symptoms fail to take a test in case knowing a positive result stops them working.

However, it appears to have blindsided Downing Street, with sources making clear No10 was had not seen the blueprint before it was leaked and warning it would create ‘perverse incentives’.

Treasury officials said it was ‘not going to happen’ and swiped that they had ‘zero idea’ how Mr Hancock allowed it to get traction. ‘Just bonkers. The whole country will suddenly develop a dry cough,’ one said.

Sage warns lockdown must not be lifted too soon

The Government will have a fierce battle with SAGE on its hands if it wants to lift lockdown rules in February or mid-way through the vaccine rollout, meeting records show. Files from the scientific advisers show they have repeatedly warned that ministers face another epidemic and ‘very many hospital admissions and deaths’ if they jump the gun.

A batch of papers from SAGE, published yesterday, revealed:

  • There were staggering 117,000 to 287,000 new coronavirus infections per day before the third lockdown, SAGE estimated;
  • It was ‘not clear’ on January 6 whether this lockdown would work at keeping the virus under control. The new variant will undoubtedly make it slower to take effect and the NHS should expect the same level of pressure, or more, into the middle of February;
  • The impact of the vaccines on the R rate in the UK will be ‘modest’ by mid-February, and lockdown should only be relaxed when virus prevalence and hospital pressure are both low;
  • It is critical to get ‘extremely high’ vaccine coverage in vulnerable people before lockdown rules are loosened; 
  • If lockdown rules are loosened mid-vaccine rollout there will be another full-blown epidemic with ‘very many hospital admissions and deaths’;
  • The Kent variant, also known as B.1.1.7, may be more transmissible because it ‘grows well in the airways’;
  • NERVTAG said in December that it expected data on whether Kent variant was more deadly ‘in the next few days’;
  • Variants of the virus will very likely emerge, SAGE warns, and this becomes more likely as more people develop immunity and the virus faces pressure to evolve to survive. 

Mr Eustice refused to rule out the plan entirely, saying ministers were looking at reasons why people avoid self-isolating with Covid symptoms.

But he stressed that ‘no decisions’ had been taken and the government was ‘always keeping multiple policies under review’. 

The wrangling came as as grim figures showed business activity plunging into the red again this month.

Closely-watched PMI data for the private sector showed a reading of 40.6 so far in January – with anything below 50 pointing to a contraction.

It was significantly worse than the expectations of analysts, who had predicted 46.1, underlining the devastating impact of the pandemic. 

Economists warned that a double-dip downturn is now firmly ‘on the cards’ after the fledgling recovery from the worst recession in 300 years was strangled by action to control a surge in cases.

Figures last week showed GDP dropping 2.6 per cent in November during the second England-wide Covid lockdown.

Any December rally will have been smothered by the harsh ‘tier’ controls in England, and the renewed blanket curbs in January.

In more signs of the huge problems facing the country, figures have revealed public borrowing hit £34.1billion in December – the third highest monthly figure on record. 

And retail sales saw the largest fall since records began last year, even though there was a slight uptick in December.

However, separate PMI released for the Eurozone show the UK is far from alone, with France and other major players also facing GDP going into reverse again.  

Chris Williamson, Chief Business Economist at IHS Markit, said its ‘flash’ PMI for this month showed the crucial services sector had been hit ‘especially hard’.

However, in a crumb of comfort, he said the scale of the downturn was far less dramatic than last spring. 

‘A steep slump in business activity in January puts the locked-down UK economy on course to contract sharply in the first quarter of 2021, meaning a double-dip recession is on the cards,’ he said. 

‘Services have once again been especially hard hit, but manufacturing has seen growth almost stall, blamed on a cocktail of COVID-19 and Brexit, which has led to increasingly widespread supply delays, rising costs and falling exports. 

‘Worryingly, January also saw companies reduce headcounts at an increased rate again – albeit less so than seen between March and November. The steepest loss of jobs was recorded in the hotels, restaurants, travel and leisure sectors, reflecting the new lockdown measures. 

‘Encouragingly, the current downturn looks far less severe than that seen during the first national lockdown, and businesses have become increasingly optimistic about the outlook, thanks mainly to progress in rolling out COVID-19 vaccines. 

‘Business hopes for the year ahead have risen the highest for over six-and-a-half years, boding well for the economy to return to solid growth once virus restrictions ease.’ 

Government borrowing soared to £34.1billion in December – the third highest monthly figure on record – amid growing fears about the UK’s debt mountain.

UK faces double-dip recession as business activity slumps in January

Britain is facing a double-dip recession as grim figures showed business activity plunging into the red again this month.

Closely-watched PMI data for the private sector showed a reading of 40.6 so far in January – with anything below 50 pointing to a contraction.

It was significantly worse than the expectations of analysts, who had predicted 46.1, underlining the devastating impact of the pandemic. 

Economists warned that a double-dip downturn is now firmly ‘on the cards’ after the fledgling recovery from the worst recession in 300 years was strangled by action to control a surge in cases.

Figures last week showed GDP dropping 2.6 per cent in November during the second England-wide Covid lockdown.

Any December rally will have been smothered by the harsh ‘tier’ controls in England, and the renewed blanket curbs in January.

In more signs of the huge problems facing the country, figures have revealed public borrowing hit £34.1billion in December – the third highest monthly figure on record. 

And retail sales saw the largest fall since records began last year, even though there was a slight uptick in December.

However, separate PMI released for the Eurozone show the UK is far from alone, with France and other major players also facing GDP going into reverse again.  

The number for the last month of 2020 was £28.2billion higher than the equivalent period in 2019 as the pandemic wreaked havoc on the economy and ministers lashed out on massive bailouts such as furlough.

It pushed total borrowing for the first nine months of the financial year to £270.8billion, the peak for any April to December period since records began in 1993. 

There are fears the full-year figure will top £400billion. Even in the aftermath of the credit crunch, borrowing only hit £158billion in 2009-10. 

The UK’s debt pile reached £2.13trillion by the end of 2020, around 99.4 per cent of GDP – the highest debt to GDP ratio since 1962.  

Other PMI produced by IHS Markit yesterday showed a double-dip recession in the Eurozone is ‘increasingly inevitable’, with France among the countries most seriously hit. 

The slowdown among business activities in the currency area intensified in January as the pandemic continued to batter the continent.    

Government scientists yesterday urged ministers to delay the reopening of pubs and restaurants until at least May to prevent another wave of the virus. Whitehall sources suggested schools could remain shut to most pupils until after Easter.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of the UK Hospitality trade body, said many pubs and restaurants would ‘struggle to survive’ if they were forced to keep their doors closed until May. 

She added: ‘If we are forced to wait for a longer period then unfortunately there will be very little left of the hospitality sector – and the 3.2million people who work in it – to reopen at that point in May.’

In recent weeks, the Prime Minister has repeatedly spoken of a return to normality this spring.

 Last month he said: ‘We’re no longer resting on the mere hope that we can return to normal next year in the spring but rather the sure and certain knowledge that we will succeed.’

But asked directly whether the country was ‘looking at summer rather than spring’ for an easing of lockdown yesterday, he replied: ‘I think it’s too early to say when we’ll be able to lift some of some of the restrictions.’

The PM said the new variant of the disease ‘does spread very fast indeed’, adding: ‘It unquestionably will be a very tough few weeks ahead.’

No10 also refused to rule out an extended lockdown when asked to clarify Mr Johnson’s remarks.

There are early signs in Government data that number of people dying each day in London has turned a corner and started to decline in mid-January, with the daily average declining from 169 to 163 and falling for four days in a row between January 10 and 14

There are early signs in Government data that number of people dying each day in London has turned a corner and started to decline in mid-January, with the daily average declining from 169 to 163 and falling for four days in a row between January 10 and 14

Hancock faces backlash over ‘bonkers’ plan to give people £500 when they test positive for Covid 

Matt Hancock faced a furious backlash yesterday after ‘bonkers’ plans surfaced to give everyone testing positive for Covid £500.

The proposal, which would cost up to £450million a week, is aimed at encouraging more people to undergo swabs and self-isolate to stop the virus spreading.

Detailed in an official policy paper, it is said to be the ‘preferred position’ of Mr Hancock‘s Department of Health.

Officials fear that too many with Covid symptoms fail to take a test in case knowing a positive result stops them working.

However, it appears to have blindsided Downing Street, with sources making clear No10 was had not seen the blueprint before it was leaked and warning it would create ‘perverse incentives’.

Treasury officials said it was ‘not going to happen’ and swiped that they had ‘zero idea’ how Mr Hancock allowed it to get traction. ‘Just bonkers. The whole country will suddenly develop a dry cough,’ one said.

In a round of interviews this morning, Environment Secretary George Eustice refused to rule out the plan entirely, saying ministers were looking at reasons why people avoid self-isolating with Covid symptoms.

But he stressed that ‘no decisions’ had been taken and the government was ‘always keeping multiple policies under review’. 

Asked directly whether he could rule out the lockdown lasting into the summer, the PM’s official spokesman said: ‘We will continue to keep all of the scientific evidence and data under review.

‘It remains our position that we want to ease restrictions as soon as it is safe to do so, but in order for us to do that we need to see the transmission rates of the virus come down and we need to see the pressure on the NHS reduce.’

A Government source insisted that the PM’s comments did not amount to a change in the timetable for easing the lockdown.

‘People should not read too much into this,’ the source said. ‘The PM wants to reopen as quickly as we safely can, but cases are very high and only coming down slowly – there has to be a degree of caution.’

Former Tory chief whip Mr Harper said the public now needed a timetable for easing the lockdown. 

Mr Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, said achieving the Government’s target to vaccinate the 15million most vulnerable by February 15 should clear the way for restrictions to be lifted three weeks later when the vaccines had taken effect. 

‘Covid causes serious harm and it’s vital we control it effectively,’ he said. ‘But this cycle of lockdowns and restrictions cause immense damage too – to people’s health, livelihoods and businesses.

‘Once the top four risk groups have been vaccinated and fully protected… the Government must start easing the restrictions.’ But Government scientists and health chiefs warned it was much too soon to even contemplate easing restrictions.

Dr Vin Diwakar, medical director for the NHS in London said the pandemic was ‘the biggest health emergency to face this country since the Second World War’.

Rounding on those still flouting the lockdown rules, he told a Downing Street press briefing: ‘For me and my colleagues in the NHS breaking the rules…. is like switching on a light in the middle of the blackout in the Blitz.’

And Dr Marc Baguelin, of Imperial College London, who sits on a sub-group of the Government’s Sage committee, said the early opening of the hospitality sector would lead to a rise in Covid cases. He told BBC Radio Four’s World at One programme: ‘Something of this scale, if it was to happen earlier than May, would generate a bump in transmission, which is already really bad.’ 

No Glasto in June for the second year

Glastonbury Festival has been cancelled for the second year running thanks to the pandemic.

The organisers say they ‘moved heaven and earth’ trying to make it happen but continuing uncertainty means Britain’s biggest musical jamboree – attended by 200,000 fans in 2019 – cannot go ahead.

It was due to celebrate its 50th anniversary last year but had to be called off days before the first lockdown in March.

Now organisers Michael and Emily Eavis say the 2021 event cannot go ahead. Sir Paul McCartney, Taylor Swift and rapper Kendrick Lamar were scheduled to headline the Pyramid stage and Diana Ross was the Sunday afternoon ‘legend’.

People in the festival crowd enjoy watching Dizzee Rascal on the Pyramid stage during day two of the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm on June 25, 2010 in Glastonbury, England

People in the festival crowd enjoy watching Dizzee Rascal on the Pyramid stage during day two of the Glastonbury Festival at Worthy Farm on June 25, 2010 in Glastonbury, England

Primal Scream, Dua Lipa, Manic Street Preachers and Lana Del Ray were also on the bill.

The father and daughter Eavis team said yesterday: ‘With great regret, we must announce that this year’s Glastonbury Festival will not take place and that this will be another enforced fallow year for us.

‘In spite of our efforts to move heaven and earth, it has become clear that we simply will not be able to make the festival happen.’

They said those who secured tickets with £50 deposits in 2019 will be able to roll this over to the next event in June 2022.

Disappointed fans due to descend on Worthy Farm, Somerset, from June 23-28 said the move was understandable, but Tory MP Julian Knight, chairman of the Commons culture committee, called it a ‘devastating’ blow and criticised the government’s failure to set up an insurance scheme to save major events.

Tom Watson, head of UK Music, said such a backup scheme ‘wouldn’t have cost too much’ and if Britain’s vaccine rollout proved a success Glastonbury would have provided an ideal celebration.

Eurostar passengers down 94% of passengers

Eurostar passenger numbers plummeted 94 per cent at the end of 2020, it emerged yesterday, sparking fresh calls for a joint UK-French support package.

Officials from both sides continued talks yesterday in a bid to strike a deal amid fears the Channel Tunnel firm is facing bankruptcy.

Yesterday’s figures reveal that, over the course of 2020, passenger numbers were down 77 per cent, dropping from just over 11 million in 2019 to 2.5 million.

Workers clean the platform area as a Eurostar train bound for Paris prepares to leave St Pancras International train station in London on January 18, 2021

Workers clean the platform area as a Eurostar train bound for Paris prepares to leave St Pancras International train station in London on January 18, 2021

The fall reached 94 per cent in the final quarter when passenger numbers were 170,010, compared with 2,624,943 in 2019.

One rescue option being discussed would involve the Bank of England providing funds from its Covid loan facility.

Industry projections suggest Eurostar, which is majority-owned by the French government, could go bust by April, although company insiders say reserves could stretch until summer. The UK Government sold its 40 per cent stake in Eurostar in 2015.

Cafes and bars could see 3.2m jobs axed

By Claire Ellicott and Sami Quadri for The Daily Mail 

Hospitality chiefs issued a dire warning about the future of many businesses last night after doctors advised that the reopening of pubs and restaurants should be pushed back to May.

Industry leaders said that just one in five restaurants, pubs and bars had enough cash to get through beyond March.

It came after Sage scientists who advise the Government warned that the sector would have to stay closed until at least May to limit the spread of coronavirus.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, told Radio 4’s The World At One that if the reopening of the sector was delayed until May, 3.2million could lose their jobs.

Diners in Old Compton Street, Soho, London, in August 2020

Diners in Old Compton Street, Soho, London, in August 2020

‘Just one in five hospitality businesses are confident that they will have enough cash to get through beyond March,’ she said. ‘There is no way that businesses will be able to survive until May with no revenues coming in for seven months.

‘It’s a cash burn of half a billion pounds to keep the sector closed each and every month. If we are forced to wait for a longer period then unfortunately there will be little left of the hospitality sector and the 3.2million people who work in it to reopen at that point in May.’

She said she hoped that with the vaccination programme under way, there would be a ‘pathway’ to the lifting of restrictions.

‘Otherwise I think you’ve got a danger that you have an impact on peoples’ mental health and well-being and also their economic health and well-being,’ she said.

A man wearing a face mask as a precautionary measure against COVID-19, walks past a closed pub in the City of London, on January 15, 2021

A man wearing a face mask as a precautionary measure against COVID-19, walks past a closed pub in the City of London, on January 15, 2021

If the sector is closed until May, she warned, there would need to be a ‘significant additional injection of cash support from the Government because the support at the moment is just not sufficient to sustain and maintain businesses and jobs’.

Doctors warned restaurants would not be able to open until May because it would push up the R rate.

Dr Marc Baguelin of Imperial College London, who sits on the Sage committee, said: ‘We looked at partial reopening and the increase of the R number and found that it will generate an increase, the extent of which we don’t really know.

‘And if this was to happen earlier than May, it will generate a bump which is really bad … at best you will carry on having a very unsustainable level of pressure on the NHS.’

School’s out until Easter? 

By Jason Groves for The Daily Mail 

Schools could remain shut until after the Easter holidays unless virus cases fall dramatically in the coming weeks, it was feared last night.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson yesterday said he still hoped schools might be able to return after the February half-term.

But with Covid cases still at high levels, Downing Street refused to be drawn on the likely restart for millions of children stuck trying to learn from home.

And a government source acknowledged it was becoming ‘increasingly difficult’ to see how schools could be reopened next month, given the state of the pandemic.

During a round of media interviews yesterday, Mr Williamson insisted there would be no repeat of the shambolic episode at the start of this month when schools were ordered to close just one day after returning from the Christmas break.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson yesterday said he still hoped schools might be able to return after the February half-term (stock photo)

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson yesterday said he still hoped schools might be able to return after the February half-term (stock photo)

He said schools would get at least two weeks’ notice of any order to reopen – suggesting that ministers will have to decide by February 8 whether classrooms will reopen for the start of the second half of the spring term on February 22.

Although Boris Johnson has prioritised the early reopening of schools, government scientists have warned that a return to the classroom could trigger another sharp spike.

‘We have to be realistic about the situation we are in and the impact reopening schools might have,’ a source told the Mail.

Dr Mary Bousted, of the National Education Union, said: ‘After the chaos and confusion that government incompetence over school opening and closure has created, it is good we now have an assurance from Gavin Williamson that school staff will be given two weeks’ notice before reopening.

‘The last thing that parents and children need now is a stop-start approach. We all want schools to be open, but they must be opened when it is safe to do so, and when the conditions are right to keep schools open sustainably.’

Any delays will pile pressure on Mr Williamson to ensure high quality education is available to all those children forced to stay at home.

He said a further 1.3 million laptops, tablets and routers would be distributed to those in need in the coming weeks to widen access to online learning, providing the ‘ultimate safety net’ for disadvantaged pupils.

He added that he had ‘made it clear to schools’ what was the ‘absolute minimum’ they were expected to provide.

Mr Williamson said he wanted to get pupils back in the classroom at the ‘earliest possible opportunity’, adding: ‘I would certainly hope that that would be before Easter.’

Downing Street confirmed that Mr Johnson wanted schools to reopen as quickly as possible but refused to be drawn on when that would be.

‘If we can open them up before Easter we obviously will do but that is determined by the latest scientific evidence and data,’ the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said. 

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