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Sir Patrick Vallance has admitted the UK’s COVID death rate is ‘awful’ amid concerns the new variant of coronavirus may be more deadly than the first.
In a sombre press conference on Friday, the UK's chief scientific adviser stood alongside Boris Johnson and chief medical officer Chris Whitty to paint a sober picture for the coming weeks.
They said the new variant, first identified in Kent, could be associated with a 30% higher mortality rate.
The three warned that the daily death rate, which hit a record 1,820 earlier this week, may not have peaked yet and that it would be “some weeks” before a reduction in the number of COVID hospital patients in recent days would “work its way through the system”.
Sir Patrick said there was also some evidence that variants which had appeared in South Africa and Brazil may be less susceptible to approved COVID-19 vaccines than the original strains.
In addition, Johnson warned further measures could be required to stop the new variants entering the UK following the decision to suspend all the Government’s travel corridors.
In a further downbeat note, Sir Patrick added: “I don’t think this virus is going anywhere. It’s going to be around, I think, forever as a virus, but it will be controlled.”
‘Awful’ death rate
The sombre press conference was in sharp contrast to the recent optimism of a successful vaccination programme that has seen more than 5 million adults in the UK receive their first jab.
The past week has seen the UK report a record daily death toll of 1,820, while the seven-day average of deaths continues to increase.
Sir Patrick said the “awful” death rate will stay “high for a little while” before beginning to decline, regardless of the impact of the new variant.
“The death rate is awful and it’s going to stay, I’m afraid, high for a little while before it starts coming down, that was always what was predicted from the shape of this,” he said.
“I think the information about the new variant doesn’t change that.”
Prof Whitty warned the coronavirus situation in the UK remained “extremely precarious” with the virus still on the increase in some parts of the country.
He said: “In terms of the infection rate, if you took the country as a whole and just averaged it, then the number of infections is broadly going down but it is at a very high level, and it is extremely precarious – I really want to stress this.
“A very small change and it could start taking off again from an extremely high base, and there are some areas of the country and some age groups in which it does not appear to be going down – for example in people (aged) 20-30, the evidence is that it may still be increasing in some parts of the country.
“It is not solidly going down and it is very, very high.”
Prof Whitty said the peak of deaths “may well be still in the future”, before warning: “If people took this moment and said, ‘Right, it is over’, it would get back into very deep trouble very fast and the NHS is absolutely at the top of what it can manage.
“If that happened again, we would be in really, really deep trouble.”
On Monday, experts said the UK has the highest daily death rate in the world.
Oxford University researchers Our World In Data said an average of 935 daily deaths over the last week was the equivalent of more than 16 people in every million dying each day with coronavirus.
Watch: COVID infection slightly decrease but remain high
What does this mean for lockdown?
The Prime Minister said that the lockdown rules would be reviewed on 15 February but warned that stricter measures may be needed to regain control over the spread of the virus in the meantime.
Johnson said he believes Britain will have to live with COVID for "some time to come", adding that there is a discussion ongoing about which measures can be lifted and how.
He told the briefing things will be opened "only safely, only cautiously", and that businesses will be better served by a slower approach rather than lifting measures quickly, only to go back into lockdown.
"The first thing that we want to reopen... is schools, and that remains the priority," he said.
What about the variants?
Sir Patrick said the Brazilian and South African coronavirus variants are of more concern than the UK strain because there are fears they may be less susceptible to vaccines.
“We know less about how much more transmissible they are,” he said. “We are more concerned that they have certain features that they might be less susceptible to vaccines.
“They are definitely of more concern than the one in the UK at the moment, and we need to keep looking at it and studying it very carefully.”
Sir Patrick said the coronavirus variant which emerged in Kent is “a common variant comprising a significant number of cases” and transmits up to 70% more easily than the original virus.
“We think it transmits between 30% and 70% more easily than the old variant. We don’t yet understand why that is the case,” he continued. “It doesn’t have a difference in terms of age distribution … it can affect anybody at any age, similarly to the original virus.”
He added that among people who have tested positive for COVID-19, there is “evidence that there is an increased risk” of death for those who have the new variant compared with the old virus.
Watch: What you can and can’t do during UK’s third lockdown
He cautioned, however, that this is based on evidence which is “not yet strong” and there is “no real evidence of an increase in mortality” among those hospitalised by the variant.
“These data are currently uncertain and we don’t have a very good estimate of the precise nature or indeed whether it is an overall increase, but it looks like it is,” he added.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said after the briefing: "This is deeply alarming news, not least because Boris Johnson assured the nation back in December there was no evidence the variant was more dangerous.
"We urge ministers to go further and faster on vaccination roll out now to save lives, and introduce proper financial support for those needing to isolate to help breaks chains of transmission."
Despite the severity of the situation, the panel emphasised some small positives.
“There are signs the number of people in hospital is beginning to flatline in parts of England,” said Prof Whitty. “There has been a turning of the corner on that and the number of people with infections has gone down.
“There are definite signs of improvement but from a very high level.
“The number of people in hospital with Covid in the UK [is] increasing all the time, and has been over the last several weeks, and is now at an extraordinarily high level.
“But there’s now signs of this beginning to flatten out, in some parts of England – particularly the south east, east of England and London – there’s now signs of some reductions but at an incredibly high rate still.”
Latest vaccine news
Johnson told the briefing that 400,000 vaccinations have been carried out in the last 24 hours, taking the total to more than five million since the rollout began in December.
However: "There is more to do and the target remains stretchy," he said.
The government aims to have given 13 million people in the UK their first dose of the vaccine by the end of February.
A poll published on Friday revealed that the UK is now the most pro-vaccination country in the world, with 81% of Britons saying they would take up the offer of a coronavirus vaccine when offered.