Coronavirus cases are once again beginning to increase in parts of London, a major study has found.
Three months ago, in December, the capital was one of the first places to be hit by the more transmissible Kent variant of the virus, which subsequently spread across the country and ultimately led to England’s third lockdown being imposed on 4 January.
Since then, infections in London have plummeted. However, Imperial College London’s latest “REACT” study, released on Thursday, showed small increases in the capital's western and southern boroughs – though cases have continued to fall in the north and east of the city.
The disparity in London is demonstrated by this map from the study:
A report of the REACT study, which swabbed 165,456 people for COVID across England between 4 February and Tuesday last week, read: “We observed a suggestion of plateauing or small rise in some areas, most notably in London… while prevalence in north and east London appeared to be declining, there were apparent increases in parts of west and south London.”
The study estimated daily growth rates of no more than 0.15% in these affected parts of London.
While this is marginal, researchers said it should act as a warning ahead of the first easing of England’s lockdown on Monday, when schools will return and people will be allowed to socialise outdoors with another person from a different household.
The study said prevalence of COVID also “appears to be increasing” in the West and East Midlands, as well as England’s east coast.
The infection patterns captured by REACT across England's nine regions are demonstrated by these charts from the study:
In the past week, leaders have appeared increasingly concerned at infections slowly beginning to increase in some areas, with England’s deputy chief medical officer Prof Jonathan Van-Tam reinforcing on Friday that “this battle at the moment is not won” despite the success of the UK’s ongoing vaccine rollout.
The overall REACT study found that while cases continue to fall across England as a whole, the speed of this decline has slowed.
Prof Paul Elliott, director of the REACT programme, said: “The fall in infections our study has observed since January demonstrates that national public health measures are working.
Watch: Jonathan Van-Tam urges 'don't wreck this now' amid 'worry signs' (from 26 February)
"But these new findings showing that some areas are experiencing apparent growth reinforce the need for everyone to continue to stick to the rules and help keep infections down.
"At this critical time, with lockdown soon to be eased, we need to make sure that our behaviours don’t risk a rise in infections which could prolong restrictions, which we all want to avoid.”
The government last week set out its aim to completely lift England's lockdown on 21 June at the earliest.
Despite having previously raised concerns about growing case numbers in some parts of the country, health secretary Matt Hancock insisted on Thursday that he is "more optimistic about having a great British summer than I have been at any time, thanks to the speed and the effectiveness of the vaccine rollout".
England, meanwhile, is currently in a better position than numerous European countries, with more than half of the 44 nations having seen a rise in cases in the past week.
After a 9% increase on the continent as a whole, the World Health Organization's Europe leader, Dr Hans Kluge, warned "our health systems should not be in this situation" as he urged countries to "get back to basics" and re-implement measures that will drive down infections.
Watch: How England will leave lockdown