THE crucial coronavirus R rate is now below one in every region of the UK as Covid is "in retreat", according to the Health Secretary.
Researchers warned the vital number was above one in the North West of England and teetering at 1 in the South West on Friday.
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But Matt Hancock told ministers today that R value had fallen – with the number of infections expected to drop too.
Speaking in the Commons today, Mr Hancock said: "SAGE confirmed on Friday that their estimate taking into account ten different models is that R remains between 0.7 to 0.9 and that it is below one in every region of the country."
Mr Hancock added the Government's plans can proceed with "caution" but that they will not allow a second peak of the virus.
He said: "This means that the number of new infections is expected to continue to fall.
"So, there are encouraging trends on all of these critical measures, coronavirus is in retreat across the land, our plan is working and these downward trends mean we can proceed with our plans. But we do so putting caution and safety first.
"Even at the peak of this pandemic we protected the NHS and ensured that it was not overwhelmed, and we will not allow a second peak that overwhelms the NHS."
Mr Hancock also said figures released today by the NHS revealed the lowest rise in deaths since before lockdown – bringing the total to 40,597.
"Today's figure records 55 fatalities, the lowest number since March 21 before lockdown began," he said.
"They also show that there were no deaths recorded in London hospitals which is a real milestone for the capital, which, of course, in the early stages of this pandemic faced the biggest peak."
He added: "Sadly, we do expect more fatalities in the future, though, not least because the figures recorded at the weekend are typically lower. What's more, 55 deaths is still 55 too many."
Sir Patrick Vallance, the Government's chief scientific adviser, said on Friday that the prevalence of Covid-19 was on a "downward trajectory" in the UK.
He confirmed R rate for England was between 0.7 and 1 based on regions – but remained between 0.7 and 0.9 for the UK as a whole.
The R-number is the average number of people that will contract coronavirus from an infected person.
If R is one or higher, the virus will spread exponentially through the population.
An R number of less than one indicates the virus is in decline.
The R rate is so important given the implications it could have for lockdown measures. If it rises above one – a sign the epidemic is growing – tougher restrictions may be reintroduced.
There is a time lag in the calculations, with the latest R value relating to what was happening two to three weeks ago.
Public Health England said latest estimates, worked out in conjunction with Cambridge University's MRC Biostatistics Unit, showed it was highly likely that outside the North West and South West, the R value is below one in each other region of England.
However, the experts warned that there was some evidence the value has risen in all regions, saying it was probably due to increasing mobility and mixing between households in public and work settings.
But Mr Hancock said that while it is "very important" to look at all studies relating to the R rate, SAGE's overall assessment is that it remains between 0.7 and 0.9 across the UK.
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Mr Hancock did acknowledge that the North West and South West presents a "challenge", while adding that there is a "higher incidence of new cases among health care staff".
He said there is a huge package of work underway by the NHS "to get transmission of coronavirus in hospital right down".
In recent weeks it's been noted that the R rate is likely to be higher in care home settings, creating pockets of higher transmission which could push the average up.
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