Rates of people testing positive for Covid-19 in England still appear to be levelling off, the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest.
While these figures are similar to last week’s, the ONS cautioned that they were not directly comparable because the modelling approach had changed.
Nonetheless the ONS said the results indicated no clear sign of a rise or fall in rates of people testing positive for Covid-19 in England since the week before.
“There is some evidence of a small increase in the percentage of people testing positive for Covid-19 in July, following a low point in June, but this appears to have now levelled off,” the ONS team reported.
The figures came as Boris Johnson announced that further lockdown easing, paused at the start of August, would now go ahead, meaning – among other changes – soft play areas, ice rinks and bowling alleys will be allowed to open from Saturday and close-contact beauty services can resume.
According to the latest government figures, the growth rate for infections for the whole of the UK is now between -1% to -4%, and 0 to -4% for England alone, while the R number for the both the UK and England alone is between 0.8 and 1.0.
R, or the 'effective reproduction number', is a way of rating a disease’s ability to spread. It’s the average number of people on to whom one infected person will pass the virus. For an R of anything above 1, an epidemic will grow exponentially. Anything below 1 and an outbreak will fizzle out – eventually.
At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the estimated R for coronavirus was between 2 and 3 – higher than the value for seasonal flu, but lower than for measles. That means each person would pass it on to between two and three people on average, before either recovering or dying, and each of those people would pass it on to a further two to three others, causing the total number of cases to snowball over time.
The reproduction number is not fixed, though. It depends on the biology of the virus; people's behaviour, such as social distancing; and a population’s immunity. A country may see regional variations in its R number, depending on local factors like population density and transport patterns.
Hannah Devlin Science correspondent
But once again the figures come with the note: “Estimates that use more timely data reflecting infections, suggest a higher R for England than shown here. As a result, Sage [the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] does not have confidence that R is currently below 1 in England.”
On Friday, a further 11 coronavirus deaths were announced in the UK – a figure that now refers to the number of people who have had a positive test result and died within 28 days. The total now stands at 41,358 deaths.
The ONS figures also provide results of antibody testing carried out among 5,248 people aged 16 and over, revealing 265 tested positive for Covid-19 antibodies between 26 April and 9 August 2020. That, they say, suggests about 6.2% of people in England have had Covid-19 in the past, equating to about one in 16 people.
“The percentage of people testing positive for antibodies is higher in London than in Yorkshire and the Humber, the east Midlands, the south-east and the south-west of England,” the team noted.
The figures chime with data from the React2 study released on Thursday which suggested about 6% of people in England had had the virus, based on home finger-prick antibody tests of 100,000 people.
The ONS also released figures for Wales, revealing that in the period from 3 to 9 August around 1,500 people in Wales had Covid-19, a rate of about one in 2,100 people.
Should infection rates remain stable in Wales, groups of up to four households will be able to gather from 22 August.
Graham Cooke, a professor of infectious diseases at Imperial College London who co-authored the React2 study, said the ONS data continued to give important insights into community transmission.
“That recent infection is not clearly increasing is reassuring as further easing of lockdown is planned, but should not make us complacent while the virus is still circulating in the community and giving rise to new cases,” he said.