A small reduction in COVID-19 cases across some parts of the UK should not be used as an excuse to lift lockdown or reduce adherence to the rules, an expert scientist has told Sky News.
Dr Andrew Preston, an infectious diseases microbiologist at the University of Bath, warned that lifting restrictions on the basis of cases beginning to drop would be “incredibly dangerous”.
Sky News analysis has found around eight in 10 local authority areas had a weekly infection rate of more than 300 cases per 100,000 people in the week ending 10 January.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the government was banning travel to countries that had a rate of more than 20 cases per 100,000 people.
Twelve of the 26 areas around the UK with more than 1,000 cases per 100,000 people in the past week were in London.
Weekly infection rates increased in a third of the UK’s local authority areas in the week ending 10 January compared with the previous week, when the third national lockdown started.
The majority of areas that have seen larger increases were under less severe restrictions before Christmas, such as the North West, Midlands and the South West.
Cases in Torbay, Devon, increased by 89% from 928 to 1,363.
And cases in Knowsley, Merseyside, went up by 725 to 1,005.
Areas that have seen decreases in cases are where the new variant was first detected, such as London and parts of the South East, and were placed in Tier 4 before Christmas.
The situation is improving the most in Brentwood in Essex, Derry in Northern Ireland, and Bridgend in Wales.
However, the positivity rate – the percentage of tests that are positive – at the beginning of January was over 5% in most local areas. The WHO suggests any level above that means the virus is not under control.
The high levels of infection across the UK has raised questions over whether lockdowns can be lifted soon, but experts have cautioned it is still too early.
Dr Preston told Sky News: “My concern is we’ve done this twice before, the moment we start to see this plateau and cases falling we think ‘fantastic, we’re there’.
“So we came out of lockdown in June with cases much lower than they are now, but that meant we had this reservoir that grew during the summer, then we came out of the November lockdown far higher than June.
“Now that cases are even higher than the start of December, any case of easing officially or in terms of behaviour is just irresponsible.”
He said it is different this time around because we have a vaccine, but many more people than the four most vulnerable groups, which are set to be immunised by mid-February, need to have the jab before restrictions can start to be lifted.
“My view is, we have restrictions until everybody has the vaccine,” he added.
The over-80 age group’s weekly infection rate is the only one that has not dropped, with a rise of 21% from 475 cases per 100,000 people to 577 cases in the week to 10 January.
Older people are more likely to have severe symptoms and need hospital treatment for COVID-19.
The pressure on the NHS is mounting as the numbers of people being admitted to hospital increases, with London patients transferred to hotels and also to Leeds hospitals last week.
Hospital admissions numbers are above or close to their spring peak in all NHS regions.
In all English NHS regions, bed occupancy is at, or close to, 92% – NHS Improvement’s safety threshold.
Although cases are levelling off in some areas, hospital admissions and deaths usually have a two-week lag before they rise as well.
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty warned hospital admissions and deaths are likely to rise in the next week.
He told a Downing Street press conference that while cases were slowing in some parts and that this would eventually reduce the pressure on hospitals, “the peak of deaths is, unfortunately, a bit later still”.