One in eight people in England — around 5.4million people — had already had
Blood tests on a random sample of the population, to check for signs of immunity to Covid-19, suggested that 12 per cent of over-16s had been infected in the past.
This was up from one in 14 people in October, suggesting a staggering five per cent of the country was infected even during the early parts of the second wave.
One expert claimed the surveillance study results suggest coronavirus ‘is much more widespread in the UK than previously realised’. And almost a million people have been officially diagnosed with the virus since January 1 so the proportion who have already had it is now likely to be even higher.
But the 12 per cent figure could easily be an under-estimate because antibody levels fade over time. The true size of the pandemic is a mystery because millions of infected people were not tested during the height of the crisis last spring.
If the results are accurate, it would suggest Covid has an infection-fatality rate (IFR) of around 1.4 per cent, given there have been around 78,000 lab-confirmed deaths since the pandemic began. No10’s top scientific advisers believe the mortality rate is closer to the 0.5 per cent mark, suggesting around 15million people — or more than a quarter of England’s population — have already had the virus.
The ONS’s survey, which collects regular blood samples from a group of people intended to represent England’s population, suggested that signs of immunity are strongest in Yorkshire and the Humber, where antibodies were found in 17 per cent of people.
London – which has been worst affected in both the first and second wave – saw the second highest past infection rate at 16.4 per cent. Six out of nine regions had levels higher than the England average, with only the South East, South West and East of England showing lower signs of immunity than the country as a whole.
The figures vary to estimates made by Cambridge University experts, who also feed into SAGE. Last week the team estimated the attack rate — the proportion of how many people in any region that have had the virus — stood at 30 per cent in London and 26 per cent in the North East.
It’s thought that at least 60 per cent of a population need to have caught the virus for the group to reach herd immunity, which is when a disease runs out of room and can no longer spread because too many people are immune to it.
HALF of Covid survivors may still be vulnerable to South African variant because it can ‘escape’ immune system
The South African coronavirus variant may slip past parts of the immune system in as many as half of people infected with different versions in the past, scientists fear.
Researchers say that a mutation on a specific part of the virus’s outer spike protein appears to make it able to ‘escape’ antibodies. Antibodies are substances made by the immune system that are key to destroying viruses or marking them for destruction by white blood cells.
South African academics found that 48 per cent of blood samples from people who had been infected in the past did not show an immune response to the new variant. One researcher said it was ‘clear that we have a problem’.
Professor Penny Moore, the researcher behind the project, claimed people who were sicker with coronavirus the first time and had a stronger immune response appeared less likely to get reinfected.
Antibodies are a major part of the immunity that is created by vaccines – although not the only part – so if the virus continues evolving to escape from them it could mean that vaccines have to be redesigned and given out again.
But experts so far say they have no reason to believe vaccines won’t work, which may be because they produce a stronger immune response than a very mild infection, and because they produce various different types of immune cells.
At least 54 people in the UK have already been confirmed to have had the South African Covid variant, although these were picked up by random sampling so the true number is likely much higher.
In a bid to stop new variants coming into the country, Britain has now made it mandatory for all international arrivals to quarantine for 10 days and provide proof of a negative test within three days before departing for the UK.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates how many people have had coronavirus already by checking blood samples of adults over the age of 16 for antibodies.
Antibodies are substances made by the immune system that are key to destroying viruses or marking them for destruction by white blood cells. The presence of them in the blood generally means someone has either partial or total immunity against catching a disease again.
They can only be made by someone coming into contact with the exact virus they are related to, or by someone getting vaccinated against the virus.
This means this could be the ONS’s last clean antibody study where data isn’t muddied by the fact that millions of people have had a vaccine and will now show the same sign of immunity.
The report said: ‘The estimates suggest there has been an increase in antibody positivity in the most recent month.’
And the ONS added in a tweet: ‘Our data shows Covid-19 infection rates remain high.’
A sharp increase in the percentage of people testing positive for antibodies is another sign of the devastating effect the second wave has had on the UK, with it surging from just seven per cent in October to 12 per cent in December.
This suggests at least five per cent of the country caught and recovered from coronavirus in just two months of the second wave in the autumn. This only includes people over 16 and living at home, and doesn’t account for care home residents or the people who died of the virus.
It’s also possible that people with a very mild illness don’t develop enough antibodies for a test to pick them up, so the true number could be even higher – around a third of people who catch the virus don’t report any symptoms.
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, said: ‘This study shows that infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus is much more widespread in the UK than previously realised with around one in 10 people estimated to have been infected by December 2020.
‘Measuring antibodies in the blood is an indication of previous infection but doesn’t indicate when that infection took place.
‘Significant increases in antibody positivity where observed between November 2020 and December 2020 in England, Wales and Scotland although these are estimates with large variations including substantial differences between regions in England.’
He added: ‘The implications are that infection rates increased significantly between November and December.
‘This raises some important questions concerning the possible impact of the UK variant virus on infection rates – this variant is more transmissible and may account for the increased levels of infection as detected by antibodies. It is also interesting from the perspective of the vaccine.
‘We are still not sure about the impact of vaccination on the levels and duration of protective immunity in those previously infected with SARS-CoV-2.’
The testing programme estimated that outbreaks have not reached as deeply into the population in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as they have in England.
In Wales, an estimated one in 10 people would have tested positive for antibodies in December – in Scotland, one in 11 and, in Northern Ireland, one in 13.
Matt Hancock reveals he is self-isolating after being ‘pinged’ by the NHS app
Mr Hancock was spotted out in a busy London park over the weekend playing rugby with his sons
Matt Hancock today announced he is self-isolating after being ‘pinged’ by the NHS app – days after he was spotted out twice in busy London parks.
The Health Secretary said he will be staying at home until Sunday after receiving the notification. Mr Hancock had Covid last year, but even those who have been infected before must isolate.
He tweeted today: ‘Last night I was alerted by the @NHSCovid19app to self isolate so I’ll be staying at home & not leaving at all until Sunday. We all have a part to play in getting this virus under control.’
Mr Hancock was spotted out in busy London parks twice over the weekend playing rugby with his sons, despite Boris Johnson entreating the public to stay at home as much as possible. Taking daily exercise is permitted.
However, as his isolation is scheduled to end on Sunday and the standard quarantine period is 10 days it appears his contact must have happened before then – most likely Wednesday or Thursday.
Mr Hancock attended meetings in Downing Street on January 13.
He led a press conference last night with medical chiefs Susan Hopkins and Stephen Powis. Under the rules, they are not expected to have to self-isolate unless Mr Hancock is confirmed as positive with the virus.
Antibody data on infection in private households suggests that one in 10 in Wales had also been infected by December, alongside one in 13 in Northern Ireland and one in 11 in Scotland.
The figures come from the Office for National Statistic’s Covid-19 Infection Survey in partnership with the University of Oxford, University of Manchester, Public Health England and Wellcome Trust.
Last week, the Medical Research Council (MRC) Biostatistics Unit Covid-19 Working Group at Cambridge University said it believed the proportion of the population who have ever been infected was 30 per cent in London, 26 per cent in the North West and 21 per cent in the North East.
This dropped to 13 per cent in the South East and 8 per cent in the South West.
It came as some family doctors continue to express their frustration about the rollout of vaccines across the UK.
With more than half of the over-80s and half of elderly care home residents having received the jab, ministers have now given the go-ahead to begin vaccinating the next priority groups – the over-70s and the clinically extremely vulnerable.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said ‘there will be an overlap’ between those in the first group getting their jab and those in the second as the NHS keeps up the momentum of the vaccine rollout.
He told LBC radio: ‘We’re very clear that areas should be getting through the majority of the first cohort before they move on to the second cohort, but there will be an overlap.
‘The reality is, as you’re moving through these, as you start to bring the second cohort in, there will be a bit of an overlap.
‘So, while they’re still finishing cohort one, some people from the second cohort will be having their vaccines and being contacted.
‘That’s understandable because the other alternative is you get through cohort one and you pause before you can start getting cohort two in and that would be wrong.
‘In order to keep things flowing and moving we will see some overlap, but areas should be getting through the majority of cohort one before they start moving to cohort two.’
On Monday night, Health Secretary Matt Hancock acknowledged that some parts of the country had made better progress than others in vaccinating those in the top priority group, but said more supplies of the vaccine are being pumped to areas that have fallen behind.
He said: ‘We’re prioritising the supply of the vaccine into those parts of the country that need to complete the over-80s’, adding: ‘But we don’t want to stop the areas that have effectively done that job already.’
Some GPs have taken to social media saying they are ‘crying out for more vaccines’ and that their elderly patients want to be vaccinated in local surgeries rather than having to travel further afield to mass centres.
The number of people in the UK receiving their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine has now passed four million and the Government is on track to vaccinate around 15 million high-priority people across the UK by February 15.
Once those vaccines have taken effect, around two to three weeks later ministers will consider whether lockdown measures can be eased in England.
Despite pressure from Tory MPs to move as quickly as possible, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned there will be no ‘open sesame’ moment when restrictions will all be lifted together.
Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Mr Lewis said it is ‘too early’ to outline how the national lockdown will be eased in England.
‘I’m afraid it’s still a bit early to outline that at the moment. The Prime Minister said when we put these restrictions in place that we’d have a review point in mid-February; we’re still some weeks away even from that review point.
‘I think we’ve got to wait until we get to that point and see where we’re at, see how the vaccine programme is rolling out, see how the restrictions have worked and then we can look at what the next steps are.
‘But whether that’s in February or whether we move forward in March, it’s just too early now in relatively early January to give an outline to that.’
Elsewhere, Professor Janet Lord, director of the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing at the University of Birmingham, urged caution among those who have been vaccinated.
Asked whether people who have received the jab can hug their children, she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I would certainly advise not to do that at the moment because, as you probably know, with the vaccines they take several weeks before they are maximally effective.
‘It’s really important that people stay on their guard even if they’ve had that first vaccination.’
She also warned against the idea of a coronavirus immunity passport until more is known about transmission of the virus among those who have been vaccinated.
‘People might think (it is a) passport to freedom and even those who haven’t been vaccinated will see those changing their behaviours and think ‘Well, why should I bother if no-one else is either?’,’ she said.
‘That’s the real worry we’ve got at the moment.’
However, Professor Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, said those who have proven immunity should not be restrained.
‘There’s a serious ethical issue that you’re only entitled to restrict people’s liberty in a liberal society if they represent a threat to other people,’ he told the Today programme.
‘Carrying a virus is like carrying a loaded gun that can go off accidentally.
‘We’re entitled to restrain people and check whether they have a gun, but, if they don’t have a gun, to restrain them, that’s false imprisonment.’
He added that efforts should be made to allow those with ‘certain immunity’ to return to work and normal life.