Was the latest release from the Office of National Statistics the shocking piece of evidence that led the Prime Minister to change his mind on children going back to school, and to introduce a full lockdown in England?
The ONS does not usually publish its infection survey on Tuesdays – it usually comes out on Fridays – yet today we seem to have a special release. It shows that the sharply rising numbers of new infections as picked up through the NHS Test and Trace system, and which have shown 60,000 new infections today, are not the result of distortions caused by Christmas. The ONS survey is based on testing a random sample of the population for prevalence of the disease and from that estimating a nationwide figure.
Between 27 December and 2 January, the ONS estimates, one in fifty people in England had the virus. That is up from 1 in 70 between 17 and 23 December and 1 in 85 between 12 and 18 December. It suggests that the epidemic is currently doubling at a rate of around every 20 days or so. This is not quite as sharp as the rise in infections we saw in September, when infections were doubling about once every 10 days, but it comes off a much higher base. In the middle of September only around one in 500 people had the virus.
The epidemic simply cannot continue growing at this rate for all that much longer – within weeks it would run out of new people to infect. What the ONS figures shows is that more people are currently going down with the disease – and presumably gaining immunity that way – than are being vaccinated.
The Prime Minister revealed at his briefing today that 1.3 per cent of people in the UK – of whom 1.1 million are in England – have received the vaccination since the community programme began four weeks ago. By comparison, the ONS figures suggest that 1.1 million people in England had the disease in the past week alone.
Vaccination was hoped to get us ahead of the disease. At the moment, the vaccination programme is not succeeding in this. The slight relaxation in household mixing rules over for Christmas will no doubt be blamed, but the ONS figures suggest that it is the new variant which is the real culprit, as the acceleration began well before Christmas Day.