Fewer than 24 people are catching coronavirus each day in London, new modelling suggests, with forecasts predicting the virus could be wiped out in the capital within a fortnight.
Analysis by Public Health England and Cambridge University calculates that the “R” reproduction rate has fallen to 0.4 in London, with the number of new cases halving every 3.5 days.
If cases continue to decrease at the current rate, the virus will be virtually eliminated in the capital by the end of the month, raising questions about whether the strict lockdown measures would need to continue.
On March 23, at the peak of contagion when lockdown was announced, 213,000 people a day caught the virus in London, according to the research.
That fell dramatically as soon as restrictions were brought in, tumbling below 10,000 by April 7. The number of deaths is halving roughly every week.
The figures show that London, at one point the worst-hit region in the country, is now ahead in terms of recovery. The North East has 4,000 daily infections and an “R” rate twice that of the capital. On Thursday night MPs said the data suggested lockdown could be eased region by region.
Bim Afolami, the Conservative MP, said: “If you look at other countries, they’ve often adopted regional approaches. If it makes sense from a health perspective, we need to consider it.”
Mr Afolami pointed out that the devolved regions had already differed in policy during the health crisis and added: “Within England, we should consider regional approaches too.”
Theresa Villiers, the former Cabinet minister, said: “These figures are good news. They show lockdown measures have been working and I think they make the case for further easing of the lockdown in London.
“It’s vital that we do find ways to let the economy recover – and London is the powerhouse of the economy.”
The analysis has been given to government scientists and regional PHE teams to help them forecast the trajectory of the epidemic in their areas.
The “R” rate represents the number of people one contagious person will infect. It is crucial it is kept below one to stop the disease spreading exponentially. The new figure suggests that in London for every 10 people who get the virus, they pass it on to just four.
The current “R” rate for the whole of England is now 0.75. The North East and Yorkshire has the highest infection rate, at 0.8. But the regional breakdown suggests the virus is declining everywhere since the country went into lockdown on March 23. Daily new cases across England are around 11,500 a day, down from 527,000 a day including those with mild or no symptoms.
Many communities have expressed concern that day trippers from the capital will spread the virus during visits to beauty spots this weekend after social distancing rules were partially relaxed.
However, the data suggest that the bigger threat may now be to Londoners from those elsewhere in the country.
The Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) is known to be considering regional lockdowns if the local “R” rate rises above one, and the new figures show that such a policy would be possible, and even useful in keeping large parts of the economy open. However, Steve Brine, the former health minister, argued that restrictions should be lifted for all areas at the same time.
“The country should move together,” he said. “This shows the restrictions have had the desired effect – London is ahead of the rest of the country, so this is an encouraging sign.”
The figures also show that by time the country went into lockdown the “R” rate was already falling in London, possibly helped by social distancing and home working, which had been in place at least a week earlier.
But the number of people becoming infected was still high in the regions when the country was shut down. While the “R” rate was 2.3 in the capital on March 23, it was 3.41 in the North East and Yorkshire.
The report, published this week by the Medical Research Councils Biostatistics Unit at Cambridge University, rather than by the Government, has left some MPs questioning whether they are being shown all the evidence.
Steve Baker, the Tory MP who sits on the Commons Treasury select committee, said: “This means the Government really must publish fully and frankly the underlying advice and data, so we can have a full public consultation. All this black box policy making isn’t working for the country. It’s not fair on the nation to see leaks of models, which create the impression the Government isn’t going far enough, fast enough when the public’s jobs are at stake.
“Far better to get all the data, modelling and advice out in the public domain at the first opportunity.”
A separate study from a team at the University of Manchester suggests 17.3 million in Britain may have already been infected with coronavirus, putting the county well on the way to herd immunity.
Dr Adrian Heald, of Manchester university, said: “This gives us all a glimmer of hope that there may be light at the end of the tunnel. The more people exposed to this or any virus, the less easy it is for further transmission.”
The Manchester team said that the regional variations in the data should allow the Government to bring in local releases for lockdown.
Dr Heald added: “This will allow policymakers to avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach to pandemic policy, which does not consider the variation in both infection rates and impact across localities.”
The “R” rate is calculated from intensive care unit hospital admissions, death figures from the ONS and CQC as well as behavioural contact surveys, incidents of patients testing positive and serology studies to see who has already developed antibodies.
Researchers argue that incremental lifting of the social restrictions as soon as possible is vital to minimise further damage to the economy and the impact of prolonged social containment.
London suffered an early wave of infections and the regions were believed to be around two weeks behind, suggesting their “R” rates will also begin to drop drastically in the next fortnight.
A spokesman for PHE said London’s epidemic was further ahead of the rest of the country and so was dying off earlier.
The research also suggests more than 6.5 million people have acquired the virus since the beginning of the epidemic – around one in 10 of the population.
Separate data from the ONS released on Thursday showed that at any given time between April 27 and May 10, around 0.27 per cent of the population was infected, an average of 17,820 at any given time between the two dates.