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One of the UK's leading infectious diseases experts has warned a "dramatic slowing down" in the decline of new COVID cases and a "concerning" drop in vaccination rates threaten to derail Boris Johnson's plans to ease the country out of COVID lockdown.
On Tuesday, government data showed that a further 548 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for COVID-19.
More worrying, according to infectious disease expert Professor Paul Hunter, was the seven-day rolling average of new cases, which now stands at 10,882 cases per day compared to 12,331 the previous week. This represents a 12% decline compared to a 28% decline the week before.
Prof Hunter warned this could signify that the R rate – which measures how quickly the virus is spreading – could be close to one in some parts of the UK. An R rate above one would mean cases are growing exponentially again.
Watch: How England plans to leave lockdown
In addition, Prof Hunter warned a recent decline in the rate at which the first dose of vaccinations are being delivered was also of concern, saying the UK could "struggle" to dish out enough first doses before needing to switch supply and give people the second dose they are waiting for.
In the past seven days, the UK has given 2.4 million doses of the vaccine compared to a weekly average of around 3 million doses for the rest of February – that's a drop of more than 500,000 doses in just seven days.
Prof Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the two issues were "very concerning", warning that the impact of the planned easing of lockdown measures in the coming weeks – notably the reopening all schools – may spark an increase in case numbers sooner than was expected.
He added: "If vaccination rates do not pick up very soon, then we will struggle to give enough people their first dose before we have to allocate more and more of our available doses to people’s second injections.
This could lead to more potentially vulnerable individuals being unprotected for a lot longer than we had expected as we try to relax restrictions further.
"This would have the real potential to derail the UK’s road plan for coming out of lockdown."
Government officials dismissed worries about a vaccine slowdown.
Jason Leitch, Scotland’s national clinical director, said on Tuesday the reason for declining numbers was due to supply. "It is supply, is what is going on," he told the BBC. "I wouldn’t call it a supply problem – it is completely predicted, we knew it would happen. (For) Pfizer in particular, but also AstraZeneca, the supply is lumpy, forgive the expression."
Health secretary Matt Hancock told LBC that while “we have got a quieter week this week” for vaccine supply, “we’re going to have some really bumper weeks in March”.
Downing Street insisted it remained confident in vaccine supplies despite falling numbers of doses being administered in recent days.
The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “We continue to ensure that hundreds of thousands of people each day receive the vaccines.
“As we said from the start, there will be daily fluctuations in the number of people who receive it day-on-day but you are aware of our target to vaccinate all those within the first phase by mid-April and we are confident in our supply to be able to do that.”
Watch: PM's optimism COVID restrictions will be lifted by June 21
That means a target of offering a first dose to 32 million people across the UK by 15 April.
At the moment, nearly 18 million people in the UK have received a first dose, compared to 640,000 who have had their second jab.
Scientists in Scotland revealed the odds of hospitalisation were cut by up to 85% and 94% around four weeks after the first Pfizer-BioNTech and Oxford-AstraZeneca doses were administered respectively.
'Mistake' to refuse vaccine
On Tuesday, Boris Johnson warned it is a “mistake” for people to refuse to take a coronavirus vaccine amid warnings that failure to protect all communities could risk a wave of infections.
The PM said some people “genuinely refuse” to receive a jab but he believes that everyone should have a vaccine if they are able to.
His comments came as Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the government’s modelling advisory panel SPI-M, said it was important to improve the uptake of the vaccine in deprived and inner-city areas.
Government officials have been careful to avoid saying it is wrong for people to refuse a vaccine, instead focusing on efforts to encourage take-up.
NHS chief Sir Simon Stevens has previously acknowledged there is a “real concern” about hesitancy in some black and South Asian communities to accept a vaccine and efforts have been targeted at those groups.
Johnson's spokesman said: “We will continue to work closely with local authorities and community groups, including faith leaders and other representatives, to continue to promote the vaccine.
“We have rolled out and increased the number of locations where people can receive the vaccine, which now includes more and more chemists, hospitals and mass vaccination centres.
“So we are making it as easy as possible for people to access the vaccine.”
Dr Tildesley told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We know there are certain areas, in particular inner-city areas, deprived areas, where vaccine uptake is not as high.”
That could lead to “pockets of infection”, he said, adding it was important “that we get the vaccines out to those deprived communities to prevent a potential wave of infections occurring as we do unlock”.
Watch: How England will leave lockdown