THE coronavirus R rate could be above the crucial value of 1 across the UK, the country’s top scientists say.
Four regions in England have seen a slight increase in the vital measure since last week – while every range is now at or above 1.
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When the value is below one, it means transmission of the virus is no longer high.
But the reality is the true R rate probably lies somewhere between the upper and lower estimates.
Experts warn that as Covid cases are much lower than they were at the peak of the pandemic, the R rate is more sensitive to even small outbreaks.
It comes as separate official figures today show that around 2,400 people are being infected every day – but new infections have levelled off.
Yet hospital admissions remain low – with fewer than 100 every day – and intensive care staff say they are seeing less Covid-19 patients in recent weeks.
Medics today suggested it could be because more young people are being infected while those most vulnerable to the virus have already died.
It comes as:
The latest figures published today by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) shows that the rate has increased across the country as a whole.
Last week, the UK’s R rate was in a range between 0.8 to 1.0, but that’s now up to 0.9 to 1.1.
The North West, South West, London and South East have also seen slight increases in their R rates.
In the North West, where a number of places have been forced into tougher restrictions, the R value range has increased from 0.8 – 1.1 last week to 0.9 – 1.1 today.
London’s range went up from 0.8 – 1.0 last week to 0.9 – 1.1 today, while the South West also went above the crucial value and is now at 0.8 – 1.1.
The South East’s R rate range was just below 1 last week – at 0.8 – 0.9, but Sage say this has now nudged up to 0.8 – 1.0.
But Government advisers say that the latest ‘growth rate’ shows that the epidemic is somewhere between shrinking by three per cent and growing by one per cent every day.
This measurement reflects how quickly the number of infections are changing day-by-day.
It is an approximation of the change of number of infections each day, according to Government experts.
If the growth rate is greater than zero (positive), then the disease will grow, but less than zero then the disease will shrink.
But the experts say that the figures lag a few weeks behind the country’s current situation because the Government uses a variety of data sources.
A Sage spokesperson said: “We have been seeing indications that these values may be increasing, with estimated ranges increasing slightly from previous publications.
It is important to recognise that these are estimates, and there is a high degree of uncertainty with them
“Recent changes in transmission are not yet fully reflected in these estimates because the data used to calculate R and growth rate reflect the situation from a few weeks ago.
“It is also important to recognise that these are estimates, and there is a high degree of uncertainty with them. “
They added: “For this reason, Sage does not have confidence that R is currently below 1 in England.
“We would expect to see this change in transmission reflected in the R and growth rate published over the next few weeks as we gain more certainty of what is currently happening.”
Meanwhile, experts have issued caution over the accuracy of the R rate estimate when cases are so few.
Prof Keith Neal said that local Covid clusters can also push the R rate up for an entire region when it may just be one small area.
The epidemiologist at the University of Nottingham said: “Making estimates of R with small number of cases becomes increasingly difficult and inaccurate. Hence the wide range of the estimates.”
It comes as the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics published today suggests that new coronavirus infections have levelled off.
An average of 2,400 people per day in private households in England were estimated to be newly infected with Covid-19 between August 7 and 13.
This is lower than the previous estimate of 3,800 new infections per day for the period August 3 to 9.
However the ONS said there is not yet enough evidence to say for definite that there has been a fall in new infections in the most recent week, and therefore “we continue to report that the incidence rate for England has levelled off.”
A Government spokesperson said: “The very slight movement in the R number reinforces the importance for all of us of staying alert to control the virus and save lives.
“But the number is an estimate with a high degree of uncertainty due to areas with lower case numbers or variabilities across the UK.
The very slight movement in the R number reinforces the importance for all of us of staying alert to control the virus and save lives
“It is only one indicator of how the UK is faring – ONS statistics also published today suggest that infections have levelled off.
“We are in a far better position to deal with this virus than at the start of the pandemic but to continue to keep us all safe we must remember to wash our hands, cover our faces, keep our distance and get a test if we have symptoms, so that NHS Test and Trace can keep the virus under control.”
Earlier today, an intensive care specialist said that he is seeing fewer patients needing critical care for Covid-19.
Dr Ron Daniels, a consultant in the West Midlands, suggested it could be because those who are most vulnerable to the disease have already died, while a spike in Covid cases could be among young people going out more.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “I think there are considerations around the positivity rates, but we’re not looking at the case fatality rates and we’re not looking at hospital admissions.
“We’ve seen cases go up since the beginning of July, and still our hospitals are relatively empty of patients with this condition.
“We’re seeing very few patients admitted to hospital, let alone requiring intensive care.”
Experts say that the rise in the R rate is to be expected as the country eases out of lockdown – and warn that the virus is still spreading.
Dr Yuliya Kyrychko, a mathematician at the University of Sussex, said: “The latest estimates of R number appear to indicate that in all regions of England, the estimates of R number have either remained the same or have grown in the space of one week.
“Most worrying about this is the possibility that in several regions, including London, South West and North West, the R number exceeds 1, suggesting a possibility of a substantial growth in new infections in these regions in the near future.
“With ONS data estimating around 2,400 new infections in England and Wales in the week 7-13 August, this means that the infection is still very prevalent across all of the UK, hence it is of paramount importance that people continue to follow the guidance on protection and social distancing to prevent major local outbreaks.”
Dr Michael Head, a senior researcher in global health at the University of Southampton, said: “We are seeing increases in new daily cases, and now we have an R number estimate that is approximately at the 1.0 threshold.
“The data suggests that as people mix more freely, there are probably increases in community transmission.
“This is to be expected, but highlights the problems in coming out of lockdown, particularly when there are many thousands of active cases in a population.
“Suppressing COVID-19 is extremely difficult. We know that most cases are transmitted within the indoor environment.
“It’s currently August, and so outdoor meetings are possible, but as we head towards the winter, fewer people will be inclined to meet outside.
“That raises difficult questions about how best to handle social contacts across the winter months, particularly with the increased potential for transmission from younger populations, who usually have relatively mild cases, on to vulnerable populations where the consequences can be more serious.”