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What does the latest data tell us about easing lockdown restrictions?

What does the latest data tell us about easing lockdown restrictions?

The latest Coronavirus data in the UK shows reasons to be optimistic about the easing of lockdown restrictions.

Coronavirus case rates and related deaths have both continued to fall significantly over recent weeks, while the number of people being vaccinated against COVID-19 continues to increase at a rapid rate - the number of people to have received a first COVID vaccine dose now stands at over 15 million.

Of course, Coronavirus is still prevalent in the UK right now. Tragically, many people are continuing to die after contracting the virus and thousands are still needing care in hospital. These numbers are, though, decreasing. 

Strong debates are currently ongoing as to how and how quickly Coronavirus restrictions should be eased in the UK. Coronavirus case rates are now significantly lower than when lockdown measures were implemented, but Government ministers are wanting to try and make sure that this lockdown is the last one. It is feared that if restrictions are eased too quickly, cases of the virus could surge and put further pressure on the NHS. 

In England, the lockdown-sceptic COVID Recovery Group (CRG), which was founded by a number of Conservative MPs, has written to the Prime Minister to say that all restrictions must be lifted by the end of April. The Government is aiming to vaccinate the top nine priority groups (including all over 50s) by May - according to the CRG, any restrictions past that date could not be justified.

Government ministers have though shown a desire to be more cautious, with Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab telling the BBC's Andrew Marr on Sunday that any easing of lockdown measures had to be based upon evidence.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to unveil a lockdown exit plan on Monday 22 February, though exactly how detailed this will be is uncertain. It is understood that the Government will be reviewing data this week to try and understand the impacts of easing restrictions on virus case rates. Research into how the vaccine impacts hospital admissions and virus transmission is also ongoing, so any timetable for the easing of lockdown measures will be subject to change.


Why does the latest case rate data provide reasons to be optimistic?

Coronavirus case rates have fallen significantly in UK nations since the start of lockdown measures. Broken down by UK nation, here are the latest case rates;

  • In Wales, the latest 7-day case rate per 100,000 people is 95 - the lowest rate since the end of September 2020
  • In Scotland, the latest 7-day case rate per 100,000 people is 112.3 - the lowest rate since 12 December 2020
  • In Northern Ireland, the latest 7-day case rate per 100,000 people is 146.4 - the lowest rate since 3 December 2020
  • In England, the latest 7-day case rate per 100,000 people is 177.2 - the lowest rate since 9 December 2020

The fall in case rates does not tell the whole story, though it is nevertheless important. The lower the case rate, the fewer people that are testing positive for Coronavirus. Governments will want these numbers to be as low as possible before easing restrictions, knowing that easing restrictions is likely to lead to at least some increase in virus transmission.

While lockdown measures remain in place, it can be expected that the case rates will be likely to continue to fall further. Low case rates are expected to increase the likelihood of restrictions being eased in the coming weeks.

On 14 February, the UK reported 10,972 new cases of COVID-19 - the lowest daily figure since 2 October 2020.


Are deaths from the virus falling and what does this mean for restrictions?

The number of daily deaths within 28 days of a positive Coronavirus test has been falling since peaking on 19 January. 

It is hoped that as more people are vaccinated against COVID-19, the number of people dying from the virus will reduce even further. The Government has been offering a first vaccine dose to everyone in the top four priority groups as set out by the JCVI. Around 88% of all deaths from COVID-19 in the UK are in these groups, so the death rate should reduce, provided vaccines continue to be effective.


How is the UK's vaccination programme going?

Most people consider that to date, the UK's Coronavirus vaccination programme has been a great success. In just over a year since the first cases of the virus were identified in the UK, a number of vaccines have been developed in the UK and abroad, and more than 15 million people in the UK have now had a first vaccine dose.

This could be described as quite a remarkable and impressive achievement - especially with the UK vaccinating people much faster than its European neighbours - though the Government's response throughout the pandemic can certainly be questioned and people will ask why the UK has one of the highest death rates from the virus.

In the 7 days up to and including 12 February, the UK vaccinated 441,660 people each day on average, translating to just over 3 million vaccine doses in a week.

The Government has said it wants to vaccinate all over 50s and clinically vulnerable people by May - that's around another 17 million people. If a similar vaccination rate is kept up, it looks likely that the target will be reached. As more people received second doses, the first dose rate may differ, but the Government currently appears on track, provided that the necessary supply of vaccines stays available.


What can we expect in the coming weeks?

It seems highly likely that Coronavirus restrictions will start to be eased in England in the coming weeks, starting with the reopening of schools on 8 March. Whether all schools will open at once and for all pupils is not completely clear, however, a phased reopening now looks less likely and all pupils may instead return at once.

Details of the reopening of schools and other parts of society are expected to be set out by the Prime Minister in Parliament on 22 February. There is lots of speculation as to when which sectors will open, however, it is understood that final decisions have not yet been made. If the government considers there to be enough evidence in support of it, it appears that non-essential retail could open before Easter, and hospitality outlets could reopen in some form in the next couple of months, with there also being more scope for domestic travel.

The easing of lockdown measures will rely on several key factors, including, case rates remaining low, deaths continuing to fall, positive evidence on vaccine impacts, continued strong vaccination rate and successful measures in tackling any virus variants which could disrupt progress in tacking the virus.

While there is still a long way to go in tackling the virus, the latest data does provide reasons to be optimistic. 

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