The number of new COVID-19 infections in Britain is estimated to be shrinking by as much as 4% a day, the government said on Friday, a sharp reversal in the trajectory of the pandemic suggesting national lockdowns were beginning to take effect.
England and Scotland announced new restrictions on Jan. 4 to stem a surge in the disease fuelled by a highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus, which has led to record numbers of daily deaths and infections this month.
The latest estimates from the health ministry suggest that the number of new infections was shrinking by between 1% and 4% a day. Last week, it was thought cases were growing by much as 5%, and the turnaround gave hope that the spread of the virus was being curbed, although the ministry urged caution.
The closely watched reproduction "R" number was estimated to be between 0.8 and 1, down from a range of 1.2 to 1.3 last week, meaning that on average, every 10 people infected will infect between eight and 10 other people.
But the Office for National Statistics estimated that the prevalence overall remained high, with about one in 55 people having the virus.
"Cases remain dangerously high and we must remain vigilant to keep this virus under control," the health ministry said. "It is essential that everyone continues to stay at home, whether they have had the vaccine or not."
Britain has recorded more than 3.5 million infections and nearly 96,000 deaths - the world's fifth-highest toll - while the economy has been hammered. Figures on Friday showed public debt at its highest level as a proportion of GDP since 1962, and retailers had their worst year on record.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday it was too early to say when lockdown restrictions could be lifted, but he hopes a mass vaccination programme will pave a way for a return to some degree of normality by the spring. Almost 5 million people have already received a first shot.
While the infections have fallen back from almost 70,000 daily two weeks ago to under 40,000 this week, hospitals remain under severe pressure and there is concern that some people are not abiding by the lockdown rules.
Police reported on Friday they had broken up a wedding in London attended by 400 people. The rules limit ceremonies to just six.
Newspapers said ministers were considering giving everyone who tested positive in England a 500 pound ($680) payment, after a survey indicated only 17% of people with symptoms were coming forward to get a test, fearing they would be told to self-isolate and be unable to work.
Johnson's spokesman said there were no such plans.
"The vast majority of the public continues to abide by the rules and do isolate when they are asked," he said.