NHS Test and Trace data shows 330,871 people tested positive across the country in the week ending January 13. For comparison, the figure stood at 389,191 in the first week of 2021.
It is the first week-on-week fall since the start of December, when cases dipped as England emerged from its second lockdown.
But last week’s fall was not down to fewer coronavirus tests being carried out — an extra 400,000 swabs were analysed in the most recent seven-day spell and the number of positives still came down.
This means the update is another promising sign that the third lockdown, which began on January 5, is bringing England’s outbreak under control.
Although positive test numbers are high, still revealing tens of thousands more cases every day, they have stopped rising at the rate they were in December when the virus was out of control.
But they come after a shocking study that today suggested England’s third lockdown isn’t working.
Imperial College London’s REACT-1 mass-testing project estimated 1.58 per cent of England’s population had coronavirus in the first 10 days of lockdown, sparking fears that the current restrictions aren’t tough enough.
Mass-testing study that claims lockdown 3.0 isn’t working ‘does NOT prove coronavirus infections are rising’
A shocking study that suggested England’s third lockdown isn’t working does not prove that infections are rising because it missed out a drop from the second wave’s likely peak in December, scientists say.
Imperial College London’s REACT-1 mass-testing study, which estimated 1.58 per cent of England’s population had coronavirus in the first 10 days of lockdown, triggered fears that the current restrictions aren’t tough enough.
But the team didn’t test anyone between December 3 and January 6, leaving a month-long gap in their picture of how the epidemic changed during what is widely considered the worst period since March 2020, perhaps ever.
During that time a new fast-spreading variant took hold in the south, Tier 4 was introduced for millions of people, household mixing was allowed for the first time in months for millions of others on Christmas Day, hospital patient numbers surged to record high levels, and the third lockdown was triggered.
The REACT study then re-emerged on January 6, finding that the proportion of people infected with the virus had doubled since it last checked at the start of December, and wasn’t showing sure signs of decline.
The researchers behind it admit they missed the peak and so did not record a downturn in the infection rate, and say they hoped further testing in January would show infection numbers come down as the effects of lockdown properly set in. Experts have suggested the third lockdown may be slower to act because the virus has become able to spread faster and people are becoming weary of rules and not following them as strictly.
Experts said the numbers appeared to plateau between January 5 and 16. One of the researchers said it ‘doesn’t support the conclusion that lockdown is working’.
However, other scientists today insisted the findings do not prove that infections are rising because it missed out a drop from the second wave’s likely peak in December.
Imperial’s academics didn’t test anyone between December 3 and January 6, leaving a huge gap in their picture of how England’s outbreak changed during the worst of the second wave.
But other studies looking at the effects of Covid-19 across the country which suggest more optimistic trends.
Cambridge University estimates last week showed that the R rate of the virus is likely below one and could be as low as 0.6 in London.
Public Health England revealed weekly coronavirus cases had fallen in all age groups except the over-80s.
And Department of Health figures showed that dozens of boroughs had experienced a drop in infection rates.
Professor Tim Spector, a King’s College London epidemiologist who is running his own Covid Symptom Study using constantly updating data from a mobile app, told MailOnline the Imperial researchers ‘can’t really judge the effects of lockdown with their survey’.
Professor Kevin McConway, a statistician at the Open University, added that there is ‘certainly quite a strong possibility that the REACT-1 estimates are not very accurate’.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock seized on the findings to hammer home the lockdown message and said they show ‘why we must not let down our guard over the weeks to come’.
He added: ‘Infections across England are at very high levels and this will keep having a knock-on effect on the already significant pressures faced by our NHS and hospitals.
‘It is absolutely paramount that everyone plays their part to bring down infections.’
But experts aren’t sure that the data is comprehensive enough to give any accurate idea of trends in how the virus is spreading.
Professor Tim Spector, who has been monitoring the coronavirus outbreak since the pandemic began, said there were ‘problems’ with REACT’s figures because it ‘did not collect any data for a month from December 5 to January 6’.
‘So, it’s very hard for them to tell what the trends are,’ Professor Spector told MailOnline.
Random swabbing of 142,000 people between January 6 to 15 found ‘no evidence’ of a decline in infection levels — despite an array of promising data showing exactly the opposite. The graph shows the test positivity rate for every day of the study
The Imperial College London study missed out a long period of testing during December. By the start of the lockdown in January it found that 1.58 per cent of people in England were infected with coronavirus — the equivalent of almost 900,000 people. The graph shows the general trend across each time period the study has been carried out for, with the red line pointing upwards in the most recent week. The large area of red shading around the line, which peaks on both sides, shows that scientists are very uncertain about what the data means and it could actually be going down, flat, or going up
Public Health England data shows that the numbers of people getting positive coronavirus test results through the official swab-testing scheme has clearly been coming down since the start of January
It found that mobility data suggested people were moving around more since the start of January, meaning even tougher restrictions may be necessary
The Imperial College London team also revealed how test positivity rates varied across each region of England over the study period, with rates falling in the East and South West and plateauing in London
And the team also offered a heat map showing where outbreaks have grown or shrunk between the last two recent rounds of testing
Experts behind the REACT-1 study also revealed how test positivity rates varied between age groups for each region, over the last three rounds of testing
Above is the case rates by age groups in the UK. The highest levels are in the 20-29 and 30-39 age groups, data from the ZOE Covid-19 study shows
‘I think they missed the peak of infections, because they weren’t collecting any data [over the Christmas period].
‘Our data is very clear – we were the only survey that kept going all through the holidays – we saw a clear peak on January 1 and it’s been falling steadily from there to half the rate, where it is now.’
He added: ‘I just think the fact they didn’t have any data before lockdown means they can’t really judge the effects of lockdown with their survey.’
He said data from the ZOE symptom study app his own study uses, which asks users to log symptoms when they feel unwell to track the outbreak, suggested the national shutdown had driven down transmission.