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The latest government data showed the daily number of Covid cases recorded in the UK fell for a seventh day in a row – but the prime minister stressed the pandemic was far from over.
“It is very, very important that we don’t allow ourselves to run away with premature conclusions about this,” Mr Johnson told broadcasters on Tuesday.
The prime minister pointed out that it would take a while for the lifting of restrictions in England on 19 July to feed through to the data. “People have got to remain very cautious and that remains the approach of the government.”
Health experts warned that the country remained in the grip of a “third wave” of coronavirus, pointing to 131 further deaths reported within 28 days of a positive test – the highest daily figure since March.
Public Health England’s medical director Dr Yvonne Doyle said: “This is in part due to the high number of cases recorded in recent weeks. We know deaths follow when there are a high number of cases, and data today highlights we are still in the third wave.”
Scientists have suggested that the closure of schools for summer, the end of the Euro 2020 tournament and warmer weather might have reduced social mixing indoors and therefore Covid transmission levels.
Some have suggested a growing reluctance to get tested could have contributed to the surprising fall in case numbers. Dr Christopher Jewel, a member of the government’s Sage Spi-M modelling group said some people “may be less inclined to get tested if they have summer holidays booked”.
Professor Graham Medley, chair of the Sage Spi-M modelling group, said the fact that so many people have been “pinged” by the NHS Covid app and told to self-isolate could have brought case numbers down.
“The pingdemic meant a lot of people isolating, and you can’t get infected if you are isolating so a side effect of the pingdemic might be to reduce infection rates,” said Prof Medley. “We will see in the coming days if hospital admissions start to fall.”
The UK recorded 23,511 Covid cases on Tuesday, dropping for a seventh day in a row. It is the first time this has happened since comparable figures began last summer. But the fall in cases has not yet led to a fall in hospitalisations.
NHS chiefs have warned they are under similar levels of pressure as at the height of the pandemic in January. Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, said hospitalisations from Covid illness was still rising, while the health service attempted to go “full pelt on the backlog recovery”.
Professor Neil Ferguson, a member of the government’s Sage group, warned a “resurgence” in the virus was still possible in the weeks ahead. The Imperial College epidemiologist said it would be “several more weeks” before the full impact of the 19 July unlocking in England is known.
Despite the encouraging data on Covid infection levels, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove vowed to plough ahead with plans for compulsory “vaccine passports” – branding all those who refuse a vaccine “selfish”.
Mr Gove risked the wrath of Tory MPs firmly opposed to mandatory use of vaccine certification by warning those who refuse to be jabbed that they may not be able to access mass events.
The government is mulling the use of vaccine passports for big events such as football matches – having already announced they will be required for nightclubs and other crowded venues in England from the end of September.
The senior cabinet minister said some events “will be barred to you” if “you deliberately refuse to get vaccinated”. Mr Gove also said he was still pushing for co-operation across the four nations of the UK on Covid certification.
Influential Conservative MP Steve Baker warned that vaccine passports could cause a major rift in the party, following reports the government was considering a plan which would require students to be double-jabbed before they are allowed to return to university campuses.
“It is an outrageous proposal, and one that doesn’t seem likely to do any good,” said Mr Baker, deputy chair of the Covid Research Group (CRG) told The Sun. “I believe the government is in terrible danger of splitting the Tory Party irretrievably.”
Mr Johnson attempted to smooth over a row about vaccination at universities, after he was accused of blaming students for the relatively low vaccine take-up rates among young people.
“I think that the young people of this country are doing an incredible job of coming forward to get vaccinations,” he told reporters, declining to confirm or deny reports that unvaccinated students might be banned from lectures and halls of residence.
The prime minister added: “The figures are outstanding. It’s almost 70 per cent now of 18 to 20 year-olds who have come forward to get jabs. It’s just wonderful.”
Meanwhile, GPs and hospitals were told that all children 12 and over who are eligible for a Covid vaccine must receive it before the start of the new school term.
The instruction from NHS bosses came as figures showed record numbers of pupils had been forced out of classrooms due to coronavirus just before the summer break.
A record 1.13 million children in England were out of school for Covid-related reasons towards the end of term, government figures released on Tuesday showed. Around 994,000 children self-isolated due to a possible contact with a Covid case.