Government scientists believe the reproductive rate – the R – for coronavirus has fallen to below 1 across the UK, suggesting a retreating epidemic.
A subgroup of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) put the R – which represents how many people an infected person will pass the virus on to – at 0.8 to 1.0, down from 1.2 to 1.3 last week.
The Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling (Spi-M) said the number of new infections is now shrinking by between 1% and 4% every day.
However, scientists advising Government warned that case levels “remain dangerously high”.
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Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, from the maths faculty at the University of Cambridge, said the drop in R is “very encouraging news”.
He said the decline in positive cases has been slow but cases are “nearly half what they were three weeks ago, which is enormously hopeful”.
He told the BBC that, by next month, the UK will start seeing the benefits of the vaccine rollout.
Scientific advisers had also welcomed the suggestion of more financial support but Treasury sources were adamant the plan will not go ahead.
Downing Street said there are “no plans” to go ahead with a proposal to pay £500 to everyone who tests positive for coronavirus in order to increase the number of people abiding by quarantine rules.
Infection rate levelling off
It comes as data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) infection survey shows there has been a ‘levelling off’ in the number of people infected with coronavirus in Scotland in the most recent week.
We’ve produced our latest estimates for the level of #COVID19 infection rates across the UK https://t.co/P5acjH4kNg pic.twitter.com/uyCKU11Wjv
— Office for National Statistics (ONS) (@ONS) January 22, 2021
The ONS estimated 1 in 100 people in Scotland, or around 52,200 people, had Covid-19 in the week ending 16 January.
Nevertheless, the new variant of coronavirus, which is highly transmissible, continues to put pressure on hospitals.
The ONS data is from a random sample of people, with 600,000 tests carried out over the last six weeks, including those with no symptoms.
It does not include care homes, hospitals or other institutional settings.
Speaking at the daily coronavirus briefing, Nicola Sturgeon said there was room for “cautious optimism”.
However, the First Minister added that it was crucial to remain vigilant, although the figures on test positivity were at their lowest level for weeks.
Ms Sturgeon stressed the importance of wearing a face covering properly, as she announced a further 71 deaths and 1,480 positive coronavirus tests had been recorded in the past day.
The number of people in hospital has increased by 49 in 24 hours to 2,053, after a sharp drop in the daily figure on Thursday.
The Covid-19 death toll under the daily measure – of people who first tested positive for the virus within the previous 28 days – now stands at 5,628.
Ms Sturgeon told the daily coronavirus briefing that shopping for food is now “one of the few reasons why we should be leaving our homes” – as she stressed it is not risk-free.
Rise in number of people in hospital
“The new variant is spreading faster and more easily so it is all the more important that when we do go to a shop… we take the necessary precautions,” she said.
“Remember, your face covering should be over your mouth and your nose.
“That’s really vital to make sure it’s giving you the protection that it’s designed to do but also that it’s giving the people around you maximum protection as well.”
She asked people to order their groceries online for delivery if possible, to otherwise limit visits to shops to once a week, and not to go into a shop if it is busy.
“Shop alone if you can, ” she said. “Don’t go with other people.”