Coronavirus UK: Mass testing trial aims to HALVE quarantine time for contacts of cases

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Quarantine times for contacts of Covid-19 cases could be halved to just a week or eliminated entirely under a pilot testing trial, it has been suggested.

Rapid tests which can give results in just 15 minutes will be handed to emergency workers in Liverpool next week, to ensure that if one tests positive the rest of their team will not have to self-isolate.

The tests will also be given to contacts of people infected with the virus who have been stuck at home for more than seven days, with those who get a negative result released from quarantine.

If the mass testing pilot proves successful, it could be rolled out across the whole of the UK. But this isn’t expected to get the green light until next year at the earliest.

Experts said today cutting or cancelling quarantine times would ‘un-cripple society and parts of the economy’ at a critical juncture in the pandemic.

Boris Johnson has urged Britons who are self-isolating to keep their distance from friends and family until their two weeks is up. Speaking in a video shot in his flat above Number 11 today, the Prime minister sought to bolster morale saying that by isolating they were ‘breaking the chain of transmission’. 

Public health bosses have warned lockdown restrictions could be extended into the new year – instead of ending on December 2 – to ensure the NHS gets through the ‘hump of winter’.

The chief executive of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson, said yesterday he felt Tier Three measures should become the benchmark across the whole of England to prevent a ‘re-bounding’ in infections.

The harshest measures under the tiered system allow restaurants, shops and, in some cases, gyms to once again raise the shutters, but still order people not to visit the homes of friends and family. This is far less restrictive than a national lockdown.

Ministers are also reportedly planning to relax restrictions over Christmas – from December 22 to 28 – to allow several families to meet again under the same roof for up to a week after months of being kept apart. 

Emergency workers and contacts of Covid-19 cases who have been isolating for more than seven days will be offered the lateral flow tests. It is the next stage of the mass testing scheme pilot (Pictured: A woman gets swabbed in Liverpool)

Hospital admissions with Covid-19 are continuing to rise across the UK. This suggests it will be difficult to significantly reduce restrictions over the Christmas period and the measures are likely to last into the new year. The data comes from the Government’s coronavirus dashboard. The first wave is from March 23, and the second is from September 23

Deaths from Covid-19 are also continuing to creep upwards in the UK. Even if infections fall, these are not expected to drop until several weeks later. The data comes from the Government’s coronavirus dashboard. Wave one is from March 23, and wave two is from September 23

Office for National Statistics data showed daily infections dropped from 47,700 to 38,900 between November 8 and November 14, a fall of 18 per cent

SAGE said the reproduction ‘R’ rate – the average number of people each Covid-19 patient passes the disease to – had fallen slightly to a maximum of 1.1, from a maximum of 1.2 last week

MORE COVID-19 RESTRICTIONS IN THE NEW YEAR, WARNS DEPUTY CHIEF OF NHS PROVIDERS

The deputy chief executive of NHS Providers has said she expects lockdown restrictions to be in place into the new year to get us through the ‘hump’ of winter.

Saffron Cordery told BBC Breakfast the NHS workforce was now ‘incredibly tired’ as they treat coronavirus patients as well as trying to keep regular services open.

She added that the main priority for hospital chiefs ‘is to look after their staff so they can look after patients effectively,’ adding ‘they are acutely aware of how tired their staff are’.

‘There’s this huge hope (of a vaccine) among staff and among the general public and this sense of ‘oh we can take our foot off the peddle now’,’ she said.

‘But actually we can’t, we need to hold on just a little while longer until all of the elements are in place.’

Ms Cordery said she expected the restrictions to remain in place into the new year to make sure we are through the ‘hump of winter-meets-coronavirus’.

In other coronavirus news: 

Office for National Statistics data showed daily infections dropped from 47,700 to 38,900 between November 8 and November 14, a fall of 18 per cent;   Northern Ireland said it would move into a second lockdown again, with hair salons and cafes forced to close for another two weeks;  Rishi Sunak faces a battle with trade unions as they brand his pay squeeze for five million public sector workers – apart from nurses and doctors – a ‘cruel body blow’; Ex-Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said the Government should test everyone for coronavirus once a month and offer ‘freedom passes’ to those that test negative;  People with Covid-19 antibodies are protected against reinfection for at least six months, an Oxford study has found.

The mass testing scheme will require the approval of England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty before it can be rolled out nationwide. 

Professor Calum Semple, a member of SAGE at the University of Liverpool, told The Times the plans would release key workers from quarantine.  ‘If we use lateral flow tests on a daily basis, we can completely avoid quarantine,’ he said.

‘If you take a fire truck with six people and the driver is Covid-positive, then five people sitting behind him have to go into quarantine for 14 days. That’s quite a crude, arbitrary 14 days.

‘So we can take the other five people and give them a new driver, and give the rest of them multipacks of lateral low tests to use each morning before the shift. And we can keep that fire truck on the road.’

The arbitrary two-week quarantine period is designed to stop anyone who has been exposed to the virus, and hence could be infected, from spreading it further.

This should stop infections spiralling in the UK and the virus reaching the most vulnerable, who could then become hospitalised with the disease and sadly die.

The period was first recommended on the basis anyone infected with the virus could take up to two weeks to start showing symptoms.  

But many studies have shown that most people who are infected tend to get the first warning signs – a temperature, cough and loss of taste and smell – up to five days after catching the virus. 

Prime Minister Boris Johnson today urged people who are self-isolating to keep themselves socially distanced from those they live with, in a video update from No10

It comes after repeated warnings that most people told to self-isolate by Test and Trace may not be following the rules.

The Prime Minister – who is holed up in No11 – today ‘reached out’ to those who are quarantining for two weeks after being exposed to the virus.

‘NHS Test and Trace, which is getting ever better, has achieved what so many of my political foes have wanted to achieve for many years, put me under house arrest,’ he joked.

‘I know how frustrating it can be, so I just wanted to say to everybody else who is in my shoes, don’t forget that, of course, the isolation doesn’t necessarily apply to the people you share your home with – your partner can still go out shopping or whatever.

‘Your housemates can still go out to exercise but you have got to make sure that you continue to observe social distancing from them.

‘Our kids can obviously continue to go to school but you’ve got to make sure you observe social distancing from them and follow the basics: hands, face, space.

‘And bear in mind what you are doing is incredibly important because that is how we are going to break the chain of transmission, stop the disease, get the R down – as I believe we are doing at the moment – and get in under control.

‘Thank you very much everybody for what you are doing, and if you do find it a strain and you do feel under mental pressure because of what’s going on, then get onto the web and look at Every Mind Matters.’ 

There has also been mounting concern over Test and Trace’s ability to stop the virus from spreading in the UK, with many experts warning its failure to reach enough Covid-19 contacts quickly means many were still circulating in the community unaware that they could be spreading the virus.

The latest figures from the Department of Health on the system’s performance, released on Thursday, showed it had failed to reach a record number of Covid-19 cases, after appearing to get slightly better last week. 

It missed 21,419 positive cases in the seven-day spell to November 11, the largest number since it was launched in the UK.

Of the 156,853 Covid-19 cases transferred to the system, 84.9 per cent – or 133,195 – were reached and asked to self-isolate. This is slightly below the previous week, when 85.6 per cent of all Covid-19 cases – or 121,407 – were reached.  

It comes after mounting concerns over the performance of Test and Trace. It failed to reach a record number of positive cases in the latest week for which data is available 

FOREIGN TRAVEL QUARANTINE TO BE SLASHED TO FIVE DAYS

Travel quarantine will be cut to just five days next week to get Britain flying again.

Ministers have approved a plan to change the 14-day isolation rule that has crippled the aviation and travel sectors.

Under a ‘test and release’ scheme, which will be introduced next month, travellers will have to quarantine for five days before being tested.

If the result is negative they will be released from isolation immediately. Fast-turnaround tests, which produce results inside an hour, will be used. The cruise industry is also to make a phased restart by February.

A Whitehall source said last night: ‘We are keen to get people flying again when it is safe to do so, and the Prime Minister is particularly concerned about the impact we have seen on business travel.

‘Cutting the quarantine time from 14 days to five has the potential to make a huge difference.’

The move is a major victory for the Daily Mail’s Get Britain Flying campaign, which was launched in September to help prevent the collapse of the aviation and travel sectors. 

The Government’s Global Travel Taskforce, which was launched last month, is understood to have recommended a seven-day quarantine period, with travellers returning from Covid hotspots tested after five days and released two days later.

The deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, Saffron Cordery, warned today that  England’s lockdown could remain in place until the new year, because there was yet to be a drop off in hospital transmissions. 

She said on BBC Breakfast that a drop in infection rates were yet to translate into falling hospital admissions. 

‘There is a lag in the spread reducing in the community and it actually reducing in terms of hospital admissions, because when someone contracts coronavirus it would probably be 10 days to two weeks before the become a hospital admission,’ she said.

‘I think it would be really tempting to say ‘OK this lockdown is working, let’s lift all restrictions on December 2 and go back to where we were’ but I think that could put us at dangerous terms both in controlling the spread of the virus and what it means for the NHS.’ 

She also said it is important to consider the amount of pressure the NHS is under before lockdown restrictions are eased.

Ms Cordery told BBC Breakfast the health service had already seen increases in 12-hour waits in A&E and admissions, slow handover times from ambulances and long waits to transfer people out of hospital.

She said the lockdown was ‘absolutely critical’ at the moment because it is currently the only way to control the spread of the virus.

Ms Cordery said the NHS was looking for the ‘holy trinity’ of a vaccine, more effective therapies to treat existing Covid-19 patients and rapid turnaround testing for the public and NHS staff.

‘We are looking to bring down the R rate significantly enough for it to translate into fewer hospital admissions,’ she said. 

Matt Hancock yesterday confirmed that coronavirus vaccines will start to roll out next month if one is approved by the British drug regulator. 

The Health Secretary said in a TV briefing that the Government has officially asked the regulator, the MHRA, to consider licensing the vaccine made by pharmaceutical firms Pfizer and BioNTech.

A late-stage study this week confirmed that the jab was 95 per cent effective in clinical trials and appears to protect people of all ages from coronavirus.

The £15-a-dose jab is currently the odds-on favourite to be approved first by the MHRA, although candidates from Moderna and Oxford University are close behind.  

SAGE said the R rate of the virus, which denotes how many people each infected person gives the virus to, has fallen for a second week in a row and could be at 1.0 or lower in every region of the UK. The whole-country estimate is at between 1.0 and 1.1, the lowest figure since the start of September before the second wave began. 

But even though the second peak of coronavirus is ‘flattening’, the public must ‘keep our resolve’ for the rest of the lockdown to prevent it rebounding, Matt Hancock told the Downing Street press conference.

He said it was still too early to say what contact people will be able to have over Christmas and what additional restrictions may be required after lockdown is eased.

Speaking with Mr Hancock at a Downing Street press conference, Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer for England, also urged caution and suggested any gains from the second national lockdown could be quickly lost as it takes ‘just seconds’ for the virus to spread. 

Professor Van-Tam confirmed that the UK is ‘waiting’ for the watchdog’s authorisation to use the vaccine and said it would ‘happen at the speed of science’. 

Leaked NHS plans revealed that even those in the lowest risk group – healthy adults under the age of 55 – may be able to start getting vaccinated in just two months’ time if everything goes to plan.  

The files say all pencilled-in dates for vaccines are dependent on the arrival of supplies – with up to seven million doses expected next month – and are based on NHS proposals to create huge GP-run facilities to deliver the shots. 

Mr Hancock said: ‘I can confirm that the government has formally asked the MHRA to assess the Pfizer BioNTech vaccine for its suitability.

‘If a vaccine is approved, it will of course be available across the UK, from our NHS, free at the point of delivery according to need not ability to pay.’

The announcement follows the news earlier that Pfizer had asked the regulator in the US – the FDA – to do the same thing there.

It released a report earlier this week confirming that it had finished collecting the required amount of safety data and that testing showed its vaccine may protect up to 95 per cent of people from getting Covid-19. 

BIGGEST EVER FLU JAB DRIVE TO COINCIDE WITH COVID VACCINATIONS 

Britain is undertaking the biggest flu vaccination drive in history this year.

Health chiefs plan to vaccinate a record 30million brits against the flu this year so hospitals can focus primarily on Covid-19 patients.

Tho achieve this, the flu jab will be offered to the over-50s for the first time in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In Scotland, it’s being given to the over-55s.

Physios, paramedics, medical students and retired NHS workers have been  trained to deliver the jabs to help with the mammoth operation.

Normally only doctors, pharmacists and some nurses are legally allowed to administer vaccines in the UK.

But the NHS has to try juggle two mass vaccination programmes at once this year – for both Covid and flu – so it needs all hands on deck. 

There have already been some logistical hiccups in trying to roll out the huge flu vaccination programme, with high street pharmacist Boots having to limit its stocks for the most vulnerable already.

The arrival of a Covid-19 vaccine this winter could put even more strain on the supply chain.

Last winter 25million people were offered the flu jab, with officials expanding the annual vaccination programme to include all Year Six children for the first time.

All over-65s, pregnant women, NHS workers and people with serious long-term illnesses such as heart disease and Parkinson’s are also eligible for the free jab.

Figures show there are around 10million people aged between 50 and 65 in the UK, meaning the vaccination scheme has had to increase by 40 per cent in size to catch all of them.  

The flu jabs will be administered at GP surgeries, pharmacies and hospitals – where vaccines are commonly dispensed.

NHS bosses have had to get creative about where they will dish out Covid jabs, on the other hand, because demand will be so great. Health chiefs are planning to establish a series of much larger venues to inject vaccines against the new disease, including empty NHS Nightingale Hospitals and sports centres, including the Derby Arena. 

Although Pfizer’s is currently the front of queue it may not be approved, or may take longer to get through the process that one that comes later, but officials are expected to give at least one type the green light this year.  

The UK has ordered 40million doses of Pfizer’s vaccine – with the first batch set to arrive next month – and five million of Moderna’s – which are due in spring next year. It also has an order in place for up to 100million vials of Oxford’s candidate which scientists say should finish clinical trials by Christmas.

The leaked NHS plans suggest vaccines could be made available to all UK adults by the end of January but most 18 to 50-year-olds, who are the least likely to get severe Covid-19 and die, would likely be vaccinated in March.  

Professor Van-Tam and NHS England national medical director Professor Stephen Powis both joined Mr Hancock remotely for the briefing, as they are self-isolating. 

He also confirmed he was isolating ‘due to a household contact’ while Professor Powis confirmed earlier this week that he was doing so after a member of his household tested positive for coronavirus.

Professor Van-Tam said: ‘It just takes a few seconds to create new infections through unneeded close contact.’

He said those contacts turn to infections five to seven days later and then hospitalisations a week after, adding: ‘You could lose this in just a few seconds.’

He appealed to people to ‘keep up the pressure on this virus and push down on it as much as we can right to the end of the period (of lockdown)’. 

Warning that infection rates will pick up again if the public ignores any guidelines put in place around Christmas, Prof Van-Tam said there is a ‘dual responsibility’ for people to follow the rules.

‘There is no magic number about how many days it is going to cost us,’ Prof Van-Tam told the No 10 press conference. 

Earlier this week Public Health England said that Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) guidance had suggested that for every day of greater freedom five days of tighter measures could be needed. 

Mr Hancock said ‘it’s still too early to tell’ what will happen after December 2 when England’s lockdown is due to end.

He said: ‘Over Christmas I know how important it is that we have a system in place, a set of rules that both keeps people safe but also allows people to see their loved ones.’

He added: ‘I just think it would be such a boost to the whole of the UK if the four nations can come together and agree a set of arrangements which are safe, careful and sensible but also allow families to see each other at Christmas.’ 

Professor Van-Tam said the Government hoped people would be able to enjoy a ‘sensible’ festive season.

‘The Government clearly wants to give us a break to some extent at Christmas,’ he said.

‘We as citizens all want a break but there are no magic numbers about one day of Christmas – ‘n’ days of payback in terms of lockdown.

‘It is partly about the proportionate measures that the Government will take in allowing us to have a sensible Christmas.

‘But it is also about whether we comply and whether we follow the rules that are then put in place for that period.

DEATHS INVOLVING COVID-19 PASS 70,000 

More than 70,000 deaths involving Covid-19 have now occurred in the UK, new figures show.

This is up from 67,000 a week ago.

The total is based on the latest available reports on death registrations, plus more recent data on the Government’s coronavirus dashboard.

Figures published on Friday by the Northern Ireland Statistics and Research Agency show 1,227 deaths involving Covid-19 had occurred in Northern Ireland up to November 13, and had been registered by November 18.

Separate figures published earlier this week by the National Records of Scotland showed 5,135 deaths involving Covid-19 had been registered in Scotland up to November 15.

And a total of 59,549 coronavirus-related deaths occurred in England and Wales up to November 6 and had been registered up to November 14, according to the latest report from the Office for National Statistics.

Together, these figures mean that so far 65,911 deaths have been registered in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate.

But since these statistics were compiled, a further 4,343 deaths are known to have occurred in the UK, according to additional data published on the Government’s coronavirus dashboard.

In England, 3,957 Covid-19 deaths are known to have taken place between November 7 and 19, with 262 in Wales.

In Northern Ireland 66 deaths occurred between November 14 and 19, while in Scotland 58 deaths took place between November 16 and 19.

When all these totals are added together, it means that so far 70,254 deaths involving Covid-19 have taken place in the UK.

The Government’s preferred measure of the official death toll, which counts only those people who died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19, currently stands at 54,286. 

‘If people don’t then the first scientific principle is things will go back up again. There is dual responsibility here.

‘There is no magic number about how many days this is going to cost us so we shouldn’t frame it that way.’ 

Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford has said he is ‘generally hopeful’ an agreement can be reached between the UK’s four nations regarding Christmas plans.

Mr Drakeford said ‘there are no sticking points, there are no disagreements’ so far in the discussions, more of which are due to take place next week.

Issues being talked about include travel between the nations, how long any easing of restrictions might last and to what extent households may be allowed to mix.

Northern Ireland will enter a two-week circuit-breaker next Friday and Scotland has placed two million people in its toughest level of restrictions for three weeks.

Earlier Metropolitan Police commissioner Dame Cressida Dick told LBC radio that the police would break up house parties but had ‘no interest in interrupting family Christmas dinners’. 

The Health Secretary raised hopes last week when he said it could be possible to dish out Pfizer’s vaccine – which looks most likely to be approved first – to high risk groups from December 1.

But officials are waiting for the jab to be given the green light from the UK’s drugs watchdog, which is now poring over data from Pfizer’s studies to make sure the vaccine is safe enough to give to millions of people.

Mr Hancock said he’s ‘still holding out hope’ the process will be wrapped up in weeks and that vulnerable Brits could start getting their hands on a jab sometime next month as part of the first wave of the crucial operation.

He added that he was taking ‘personal control’ of the roll out that could see NHS England administering an unprecedented one million doses every day.

However, the Health Secretary – who is still failing to live up to his promise of 500,000 coronavirus tests per day by the end of October – admitted it was going to be ‘one of the biggest civilian projects in history’. 

Not only does the NHS have the enormous Covid-19 vaccination programme to contend with, it is also being asked to administer 30 million flu jabs – the most ever – to protect the health service from the twin threats of both viruses. 

Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme during a round of interviews yesterday morning, Mr Hancock said: ‘We’ve changed the law to change the number of clinically qualified people who can vaccinate because this is going to be one of the biggest civilian projects in history.

‘It will be led by the NHS, who have of course the annual experience of a mass vaccination programme in flu, and it will involve GPs, it will involve the broader NHS as well, and hospitals.

‘We have got this enormous flu vaccination programme and then the likely big numbers, if it comes off, and I stress the ‘if’, will be next year for a Covid vaccine but we still hold out the hope that we might get some going in December this year.’

Asked if he will be taking personal control of the roll out, the Health Secretary said: ‘Yes. I have been reporting to the Prime Minister weekly, the NHS will be taking control of the delivery and they report to me on it. We have some of the top people in the NHS spending their entire time on it.’ 

Pfizer and BioNTech’s vaccine works by using genetic material called RNA from the coronavirus to trick the body into making the ‘spike’ proteins that the virus uses to latch onto cells inside the body, and then training the immune systems to attack the spikes

HOW DOES HANCOCK PLAN TO VACCINATE A MILLION PEOPLE A DAY? 

The Health Secretary has revealed ambitions to inoculate a million Brits against Covid every day as soon as a vaccinate is given the green light by the UK drugs watchdog.

Though Mr Hancock has admitted it was going to be ‘one of the biggest civilian projects in history’. 

Normally the NHS vaccinates 15 million people against flu every year winter over the space of about four months. 

The Government plans to set up dozens of mass coronavirus vaccination sites across the country in the coming weeks.

Doctors, nurses, firefighters and soldiers will be trained up to help deliver the inoculations. 

Retired medics, medical students and other NHS staff who normally don’t give vaccines – including physiotherapists – are also being recruited. 

GP surgeries have been told to organise the initial wave, which will involve using community centres, village halls, and practices themselves to administer the jabs to care workers and the elderly as soon as next month.

The NHS is establishing a series of much larger venues to inject millions of others once those at the top of the priority list have had the jabs. 

Empty NHS Nightingale Hospitals and sports centres, including the Derby Arena, area are reportedly being lined up as possible venues.

Mr Hancock told Sky News the roll out should be ‘relatively straightforward’ because the NHS has the infrastructure.

But the health service will have to juggle the unprecedented Covid drive with the biggest flu vaccination programme ever – 30million people are being vaccinated on the NHS compared the 15million normally.

There is also the logistical problems with Pfizer’s vaccine – which looks set to be the first jab to be approved.

It needs to be stored at -70°C (-94°F), which means the UK will need to buy specialist freezers and huge supplies of dry ice. 

Mr Hancock said as soon as a Covid-19 vaccine is given the green light, dozens of mass coronavirus vaccination sites will be set up across the country in the coming weeks, while firefighters will be trained up to help deliver the inoculations.  

GP surgeries have been told to organise the initial wave, which will involve using community centres, village halls, and practices themselves to administer the jabs to care workers and the elderly as soon as next month.

The NHS is establishing a series of much larger venues to inject millions of others once those at the top of the priority list have had the jabs. 

Empty NHS Nightingale Hospitals and sports centres, including the Derby Arena, area are reportedly being lined up as possible venues. 

Firefighters are also being encouraged  to join an army of 40,000 extra workers, that will also include retired medics and medical students.

It was revealed last night that the NHS will expand its winter flu jab roll out to millions more people this winter too.

Mr Hancock told Sky News: ‘Normally 15 million people are vaccinated against flu. This year it will be 30 million – the biggest number in history.

‘We hope that we will also have a Covid vaccination programme alongside that. It will be a huge effort, but I know that the NHS is up for it.’

He echoed the comments during an interview with BBC Breakfast, where he said: ‘I don’t deny that it’s a huge amount of work for the NHS and I’m very grateful for the unbelievable shift they’ve pulled this year and we’ve still got to deliver this this winter.

‘There are of course pressures on the NHS this year – by God there’s pressures, thanks to Covid – and for everybody who works in the NHS I want to say thank you for the work that you are doing.’

According to documents seen by the Health Service Journal, the expectation is that the full Covid vaccination operation will start in the New Year, though vulnerable Brits could start getting inoculated Covid before then.

The vaccination drive is likely to involve conference centres and drive-through sites such as those used by the Covid testing programme.

According to the Telegraph, Derby City Council has confirmed it is in talks with the Government over plans to use the Derby Arena as a vaccine site.

It could become one of the first sites where the vaccine is administered, as early as mid-December, the paper reports. 

Every major city will get a dedicated mass vaccination centre, according to the Sun.

The paper reports that 50 sites are planned in sports arenas, town halls and NHS Nightingale hospitals , along with 1,000 smaller sites across England. 

Meanwhile, the NHS is said to be launching a major recruitment drive to hire up to 40,000 thousand staff to administer the Pfizer vaccine, with trained medics and nurses at the top of their wish list. 

The vaccination army, who will be trained, will be supported by an additional 30,000-strong team St John Ambulance volunteers (pictured: Library image), the paper adds

Pfizer and BioNTech’s final trial results showed that only eight people out more than 20,000 who got the vaccine caught coronavirus, compared to 162 who were given a fake jab 

MASS-TESTING STUDY SHOWS CASES DROPPED 18% IN FIRST WEEK OF LOCKDOWN

England’s coronavirus outbreak slowed down in the first full week of the second national shutdown and the R rate across the UK could be as low as 1, according to official data that raises hopes for a lockdown-free Christmas. 

Office for National Statistics data published this afternoon showed daily infections dropped from 47,700 to 38,900 between November 8 and November 14, a fall of 18 per cent. The ONS said the rate of new infections ‘appears to have levelled off in the most recent week’.

The promising numbers from the ONS seem to suggest that both the Tier Three local lockdown rules and, later, the national shutdown, are successfully slowing down the spread of the virus. Experts at the statistical body said: ‘The rate of increase [in positive tests] in England has slowed in recent weeks’.  

Meanwhile, the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) said the reproduction ‘R’ rate – the average number of people each Covid-19 patient passes the disease to – had fallen slightly to a maximum of 1.1, from a maximum of 1.2 last week, and could be as low as 1.0 or lower in every region of Britain.

Modelling by the group estimates the R is now between 1.0 and 1.1, meaning on average every 10 Britons with Covid will infect between 10 and 11 others. 

They estimated this figure was between 1.0 and 1.2 last week. The R is one of many indicators scientists use to assess the trajectory of Covid and getting it below 1 means the virus is in retreat. 

The promising data are a major boost for Boris Johnson’s plans to loosen lockdown for five days over Christmas and let families reunite after a tumultuous year that has seen loved ones separated for months on end. 

Negotiations are ongoing between the four home nations as they try to hammer out the safest way to let people celebrate the festive period without reversing the effects of lockdown and letting the virus surge again.

But retired ­doctors and nurses and those who have first-aid skills from their jobs, including firefighters, police community support officers and members of the Armed Forces will also be targeted in the recruitment drive, the Sun reports.

The vaccination army, who will be trained, will be supported by an additional 30,000-strong team St John Ambulance volunteers, the paper adds.

Britain’s drug regulator earlier this week revealed it is now waiting on Pfizer to send over the full results of its final Covid-19 vaccine trial after the pharmaceutical giant claimed it was safe, 95 per cent effective and works in older people who are most at risk of dying from the disease.

The US company, most famous for making Viagra, announced it would submit the necessary data to regulators in America and the UK ‘within days’, bolstering hopes that Britain could embark on its major Army-backed operation to vaccinate millions of people from as soon as December 1.

UK drug regulator the MHRA has been doing a ‘rolling review’ of the vaccine and could, as a result, complete the approval process within a matter of days of receiving the application from Pfizer and BioNTech, the German firm involved in making the jab.

Dr June Raine, the agency’s chief executive, said: ‘The results reported by Pfizer are very encouraging and add to their announcement from last week.

‘We look forward to receiving the full results of the trials as soon as possible, after which we will rigorously assess the evidence of safety and effectiveness of the vaccine.’

Britain has already pre-ordered 40million doses of the vaccine and could be set to get 10m of those next month, with the NHS gearing up start dishing it out within a fortnight.

Professor Stephen Powis, NHS England’s medical director, this week said the health service was ‘working incredibly hard’ to prepare.

Pfizer and BioNTech’s final trial results showed that only eight people out more than 20,000 who got the vaccine caught coronavirus, compared to 162 who were given a fake jab.

A total of 10 people got severe Covid-19, one of whom had been given the real vaccine.

An independent safety committee ‘has not reported any serious safety concerns related to the vaccine’ since the final stage trial began in July, Pfizer said.

Side effects were limited – the most common was fatigue, which 3.8 per cent of people got, and headaches (2 per cent).

The updated data from Pfizer and BioNTech should reassure critics but the Government still faces the mammoth task of transporting and storing the jab, which may need expensive specialist freezers and huge supplies of dry ice to keep it at the required -70°C (-94°F).  

The announcement is an improvement on Pfizer’s early estimate that the vaccine was 90 per cent effective, and comes just days after rival firm Moderna claimed its own jab was 94.5 per cent effective.

Unlike Pfizer’s jab, Moderna’s jab can be kept in normal fridges and freezers at between -20°C (-4°F) and 8°C (46°F). 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock earlier this week confirmed that Britain would get 5million doses of the jab starting in March 2021, if it’s approved by regulators.

The deal is expected to cost the UK between £24 ($32) and £28 ($37) per dose – while the US, which pre-ordered the jab months ago, will pay just $15 (£11.32) and is expected to get access next month if health chiefs approve the jab.

The UK is likely to pay around £15 per jab for the Pfizer vaccine.

Meanwhile, the home-grown vaccine being developed by Oxford University and Astrazenica could cost as little as £2.23. Results for the UK jab are expected in December.

Scientists warn final results for Oxford vaccine won’t come for weeks

Oxford University’s Covid vaccine is unlikely to be used in the UK before Christmas as the scientists running the project said they don’t expect to have results to give regulators until December.

The researchers published a study confirming that their vaccine candidate triggers an immune response in older people, who are most at risk of severe Covid-19, and that trials had not found any safety issues.

But the timescale for the jab, which Number 10 has ordered 100million doses of and is considered one of Britain’s greatest hopes for ending the epidemic, may stretch into early 2021 before people start getting injected.

Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said that he was ‘optimistic’ that the study would produce results showing how well it protects against Covid before Christmas. The following procedure for getting it licensed and then delivered to clinics, however, is ‘not under our control’ and could take weeks longer, he said, which would push the delivery into next year.

Scientists behind the project this morning published the results of an early trial of the jab, which found two doses created strong signs of immunity in 99 per cent of people across all age groups.

The second-phase study included 560 volunteers, most of whom were white and British, and showed that people across all age groups seemed to react equally well to the jab. It adds to data published in July suggesting it would work safely for under-55s. Studies of people with serious health conditions and other ethnicities are ongoing.

It marks another breakthrough in the race to develop a vaccine to prevent Covid, after jabs made by Moderna and Pfizer and BioNTech were both revealed to be around 95 per cent effective within the past week.

Oxford’s results are from an earlier stage of trials so cannot estimate how well the vaccine protects against Covid, but are still a positive step. The research showed people in all age groups developed neutralising antibodies – virus-destroying substances made by the immune system – within 28 days of their first dose of the vaccine, and these were boosted further after the second dose.

It showed that the vaccine caused more side effects than a fake jab but that these were ‘mild’ and more common in young people than older participants. Within the first week after having the injection more than eight out of 10 under-55s said their arm hurt and and they later experienced tiredness, muscle aches or headaches. Experts explained this might just be because younger people’s immune systems are more active and likely to over-react.

Freedom for Christmas: Several families could be allowed to meet for up to a week in December in relaxation of Covid rules – despite scientists warning Boris Johnson it will ‘throw fuel on the fire’ of the pandemic 

Families could be allowed to meet for up to a week over Christmas as part of a nationwide relaxation of coronavirus rules, reports claimed last night. 

Health Secretary Matt Hancock yesterday told a Downing Street briefing it was still too early to say what contact people will be able to have with their loved ones over the festive period.

However, it has been suggested that Boris Johnson is preparing to announce a plan for an easing of rules next week.

Ministers are said to be thrashing out plans to free the country from lockdown shackles for a few days and allow family ‘bubbles’ to gather indoors for festive celebrations. 

Several families could be permitted to join a ‘bubble’ and to mix between December 22 and 28, the Daily Telegraph reported. 

Mr Johnson is also expected to warn the level of restrictions for the rest of next month will depend on how well the public obeys the current lockdown in England, which is due to end on December 2. 

Boris Johnson is reportedly preparing to announce a plan for an easing of England’s current lockdown rules

Health Secretary Matt Hancock yesterday told a Downing Street briefing it was still too early to say what contact people will be able to have over the festive period

CHRISTMAS TREE SHOPPING IS BACK ON 

By Lizzie Deane for the Daily Mail 

Going to pick out a tree is a favourite festive tradition of many families in the run up to Christmas.

Now thanks to a tweak of the Covid restrictions, shoppers will be able to buy a tree ahead of the holidays even if they live in lockdown areas.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock has amended the rules to allow Christmas tree farms and stalls to reopen from today. It means retailers selling Christmas trees are exempt from the rules forcing non-essential shops in England to close until December 2.

Garden centres have been allowed to stay open throughout the second lockdown and some have already started selling Christmas trees.

The rule change will dispel fears that people would not be able to get their hands on a tree in time for Christmas and provide a lifeline to businesses that rely on festive trade.

But Mr Hancock has appeared to rule out hugging friends and relatives over the festive season. 

He told Times Radio: ‘I’ve got no doubt that people will continue to respect social distancing throughout, because we know that that is so important for full control of the virus.’

It comes as Met Police commissioner Dame Cressida Dick said she has ‘no interest in interrupting family Christmas dinners’ to catch Covid rule-breakers.

She told an LBC radio phone-in that officers don’t have the authority to bang on the door and count how many people are eating the turkey, adding: ‘The police have lots of other things to be doing.’

It comes as the Prime Minister was facing a battle to save Christmas on Thursday after a Government adviser insisted that allowing festive gatherings would ‘throw fuel on the fire’ of the pandemic.    

Mr Johnson said it was his ‘desire to try and allow loved ones to have Christmas together’ after a tumultuous year that has seen families kept apart for months on end. 

Addressing the coronavirus briefing last night, Mr Hancock said it would be a ‘boost’ for the UK if a ‘safe, careful and sensible’ set of plans could be agreed between the devolved nations.

He said: ‘Over Christmas I know how important it is that we have a system in place, a set of rules that both keeps people safe but also allows people to see their loved ones.’

Earlier this week, Public Health England said Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) guidance had suggested each day of greater freedom could require five days of tighter measures.

But deputy chief medical officer for England Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, who also appeared at the briefing, said there is ‘no magic number’ about how many days any easing of the rules might cost.

On Thursday, a string of scientific and medical experts warned that allowing families to assemble for Christmas risked sparking a third wave of coronavirus in the New Year.

Katherine Henderson, president of Royal College of Emergency Medicine, said Christmas should be treated as just another ‘date in the month’ this year, adding: ‘If Covid cases become hospital cases and then sadly go on to become deaths, we will regret a Christmas season that gave granny Covid for Christmas.’ 

Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the Government’s scientific committee Sage, said that allowing family gatherings would create a ‘substantial risk’ of new infections. 

‘My personal view is we’re putting far too much emphasis on having a near-normal Christmas,’ he told Radio 4’s Today programme.

‘We know respiratory infections peak in January, so throwing fuel on the fire over Christmas can only contribute to this.’  

Professor Gabriel Scally, a public health expert from Bristol University, said there was ‘no point’ in having a merry Christmas only to ‘bury friends and relations in January and February’. 

One Tory MP warned it would be better for the Prime Minister to cancel Christmas and be branded the ‘Grinch’ rather than risk a spike in Covid-19 deaths that could paint him as the ‘Grim Reaper’. 

They said: ‘He’s going to be blamed for it (a rise in deaths). It is always in mid to late January you get the NHS winter crisis.’ 

Referring to Number 10’s new guidance to keep windows open during winter to flush out lingering Covid, the MP said: ‘If the weather is cold people keep the windows shut. Granny always gets chilly.’ 

Ministers are examining a series of options to relax restrictions around Christmas. 

Under one proposal, families from three or four households could gather, but could not meet anyone else. An alternative would be to simply relax the Rule of Six to allow larger groups. 

Churches are also expected to be allowed to hold Christmas Day services, with the Church of England saying ‘the message of light shining in the darkness’ is needed now more than ever. 

Downing Street believes a less restricted Christmas is vital for national morale and fears that tight rules would be ignored by families desperate to see their loved ones. 

Ministers want to see the latest data on the state of the virus before deciding how far they can go and Mr Wallace said a decision would be taken close to December 2, when the current lockdown expires. 

Meanwhile, Mr Hancock said he is increasingly hopeful of some kind of normality by spring, as he confirmed the UK’s health regulator is assessing a coronavirus vaccine which could potentially be rolled out next month.

He described the consideration by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine as ‘another important step forward in tackling this pandemic’. 

He said: ‘If the regulator approves a vaccine we will be ready to start the vaccination next month with the bulk of roll-out in the new year.

‘We are heading in the right direction but there is still a long way to go.’

Mr Hancock added that with the news of vaccine breakthroughs in recent weeks, coupled with an expansion in mass testing, he is ‘more and more confident’ that life will be closer to normal by spring.

Deputy chief medical officer for England Professor Jonathan Van-Tam yesterday said there is ‘no magic number’ about how many days any easing of the rules might cost

Ministers are examining a series of options to relax restrictions around Christmas. Pictured: Oxford Street in London

It comes as NHS documents seen by the Health Service Journal (HSJ) suggest all adults in England – of any age – could start to be vaccinated against Covid-19 before the end of January if supplies allow.

Under the plan, every adult who wants a jab could be vaccinated by early April.

Prof Van-Tam, who appeared remotely as he is self-isolating due to a ‘household contact’, said people ‘shouldn’t worry too much’ about where they are in the priority list because the difference between levels could be a matter of one to three weeks.

Mr Hancock told the briefing he did not want to ‘pre-judge’ or ‘impinge’ on the independence of the MHRA when asked how long its process could take and that the speed of a vaccine roll-out would depend on the manufacturing speed.

Mr Hancock said the second peak of the virus is ‘flattening’ but urged the public to ‘keep our resolve’ for the rest of the lockdown to keep cases down.

Professor Van-Tam also urged caution and suggested any gains from the second national lockdown could be quickly lost as it takes ‘just seconds’ for the virus to spread.

He appealed to people to ‘keep up the pressure on this virus and push down on it as much as we can right to the end of the period (of lockdown)’.

Warning that infection rates will pick up again if the public ignores any guidelines put in place around Christmas, he said there is a ‘dual responsibility’ for people to follow the rules set out by the Government.

Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford earlier said he is ‘generally hopeful’ an agreement can be reached between the UK’s four nations regarding Christmas plans.

He said issues being talked about include travel between the nations, how long any easing of restrictions might last and to what extent households may be allowed to mix, and that further talks were due to take place next week.

Northern Ireland will enter a two-week circuit-breaker next Friday and Scotland has placed two million people in its toughest level of restrictions for three weeks.

The Government said a further 511 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19 as of Friday, bringing the UK total to 54,286.

Another 20,252 lab-confirmed cases of coronavirus were also reported.

On Friday, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said there were ‘substantial differences’ in Covid-19 infection rates across England, with rates continuing to increase in London, the east of England and the South East, but decreasing in the North West and the East Midlands.

Sage said the reproduction number – or R value – for the whole of the UK had dropped to between 1 and 1.1.

Downing Street last night declined to comment on potential Christmas rules.

Source: | This article originally belongs to Dailymail.co.uk

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