Worries that crucial 'R' number 'could be as high as one in parts of England' as UK value remains unchanged

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Rupert Evelyn

The reproductive rate of coronavirus could be as high as one in some parts of England, the government’s chief scientific adviser has warned.

The overall UK R value remains unchanged since the easing of lockdown measures at between 0.7 and 0.9, Sir Patrick Vallance told a virtual briefing with journalists on Friday.

  • ITV News Health Correspondent Emily Morgan explains the significance of the latest developments

But the R - used to measure how a disease spreads through a population - for England by itself is 0.7 - 1, according to Office for National Statistics figures released on Friday.

While the ONS figures show community transmission continue to show a downward trend, the overall R number is being dragged up by infection rates in hospitals and care homes.

Sir Patrick told journalists on Friday there were “roughly” 39,000 new coronavirus cases each week.

R is not taken in isolation as a measurement of how widespread the disease is. While it indicates whether the epidemic is getting bigger or smaller, the number of current infections is also important in determining the scale of the virus.

If the R is higher than one then that means a disease will keep on spreading to more and more people.

Social distancing has helped bring down the R number. Credit: PA

Sir Patrick told the briefing that the prevalence of Covid-19 was on a “downward trajectory” in the UK and over the past two weeks had stood at 53,000 people - 0.1% of the country.

“The latest R-value calculation is between 0.7 and 0.9 for the UK as a whole, it may be a little bit higher in England it may be between 0.7 and 1, and there is a bit of regional variation,” Sir Patrick said.

He said there could be “some places” where the R-value is very close to one.

PHE medical director Dr Yvonne Doyle said an increase in regional R numbers was "to be expected as we gradually move out of lockdown".

“It is vital that everyone continues with social distancing, practising good hand hygiene and must remain at home and order a test if they have symptoms,” she added

Asked about the regional R number variations at the daily Downing Street briefing, health secretary Matt Hancock said the study needs to be looked at “in the round” with other data.

He added the government was “seeking to take a more local approach” to tackling outbreaks.

Mr Hancock said the government had been "doing this over the last few weeks".

"For instance there was a flare-up in Weston-super-Mare which we successfully got under control,” he told the briefing.

The South West has become the latest coronavirus hot spot. Credit: PA

New figures showed the north west and south west regions of England to have the highest R rate in the UK.

The R number what is based on a "consensus view" that takes into account several different groups that attempt to calculate the value.

These groups include the Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (which had the south west at an R number of 1) and the Cambridge University analysis, which had the south west and the north west at an R number of 1 or slightly over.

Dr Doyle said: “Our estimates show that the regional R numbers have increased although they remain below one for most of England – this is to be expected as we gradually move out of lockdown.

“It is vital that everyone continues with social distancing, practising good hand hygiene and must remain at home and order a test if they have symptoms."

Matt Hancock said there was a “challenge” in both the north west and the south west of England regarding the spread of the disease.

“What they do confirm across the board is that there is a challenge in the north west of England to address and to a lesser degree in the south west of England where the issue is slightly different,” the health secretary told the No 10 briefing.

“In the south west the overall incidence of the disease is much lower but the R is a little bit higher than in the rest of the UK.”

Prime minister Boris Johnson’s plans to reduce the severity of restrictions have allowed for local lockdowns to be enforced to prevent the spread.

One crucial means of suppressing transmission is the NHS test and trace system, which seeks to track people down who have come into contact with an infected individual and tell them to isolate.

Ministers have been unable to say how many people have been traced under the system, but the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “Thousands of people who have tested positive have been contacted in a matter of days and their close contacts successfully traced, using both online services and over the phone.”