Imperial College estimates that 1.58% of the population in England was infected, an increase of more than 50% since the previous testing © Andy Rain/EPA/Shutterstock

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The lockdown in England has failed so far to suppress coronavirus transmission, according to the latest survey, which indicated a “worrying” possible uptick in infections.

The closely watched React-1 study led by Imperial College London concluded that prevalence of the virus, known as Sars-Cov-2, was “very high with no evidence of decline”. The finding was based on the analysis of 142,900 nose and throat swabs from a representative sample of the English population between January 6 and 15.

The researchers estimated that the reproduction number R, which measures the average number of people one individual infects, was between 0.94 and 1.15, with a central estimate of 1.04 — meaning the rate of infection is rising slowly.

Paul Elliott, one of the co-leaders of the study, said his team would continue to monitor closely data that pointed to “worrying suggestions of a recent uptick in infections”.

Professor Elliott warned that unless infections were brought down, the NHS would struggle to cope. “If prevalence continues at the high rate we are seeing, then hospitals will continue to be put under immense pressure, and more and more lives will be lost.”

The study estimated that 1.58 per cent of the population in England was infected, an increase of more than 50 per cent since the previous round of testing from November 25 to December 3. Prevalence was highest in London, at 2.8 per cent, more than twice the level in the last testing round.

Recent data and scientific modelling have sent mixed signals on the direction of the pandemic in England.

Official daily test results have shown a downward trend this week. At the end of last week two other studies — the Zoe Covid study, based on reports from people with a symptom-tracking app, and an analysis by Cambridge university’s Medical Research Council Biostatistics Unit — concluded that the R number had fallen below 1.

But the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, the government’s advisory panel, put the R for England at 1.2 to 1.3 in its latest estimate, published at the end of last week.

Steven Riley of Imperial College, also a co-leader of React-1, speculated that there had been a fall in infections during the Christmas and new year period, when most people were at home and social interactions were limited, followed by a rise after the festive season as many people returned to work despite the introduction of the third lockdown in England in early January.

Matt Hancock, health secretary, said the study showed “why we must not let down our guard over the weeks to come”.

The new nationwide lockdown rules in England

  • The main restriction is a firm stay-at-home message

  • People are only allowed to leave their home to go to work if they cannot reasonably do so from home, to shop for essential food, medicines and other necessities and to exercise with their household or one other person — once a day and locally

  • The most clinically vulnerable have been asked to shield

  • All colleges and primary and secondary schools are closed until a review at half-term in mid-February. Vulnerable children and children of critical workers are still able to attend while nursery provision is available

  • University students have to study from home until at least mid-February

  • Hospitality and non-essential retail are closed. Takeaway services are available but not for the sale of alcohol

  • Entertainment venues and animal attractions such as zoos are closed. Playgrounds are open

  • Places of worship are open but one may attend only with one’s household

  • Indoor and outdoor sports facilities, including courts, gyms, golf courses, swimming pools and riding arenas, are closed. Elite sport, including the English Premier League, continues

  • Overseas travel is allowed for “essential” business only 

Full details are available on the government’s official website.

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