The number of people infected with coronavirus in England has fallen for the first time in three months, official data revealed today in a promising sign that the second wave has peaked.
Mass testing by the Office for National Statistics suggests 633,000 people – 1.16 per cent of the population, or one in every 85 people – were carrying the virus last week and it said the outbreak was 'levelling off'. Last week the ONS estimated that the prevalence of infection was 1.22 per cent – a total of 664,700 people.
Estimated using tests done up until November 21, the number takes into account the effects of two weeks of the country's lockdown and has declined for the first time since August.
The last time the country's outbreak shrank was at the end of summer, in the week that ended August 25, when the predicted number of infections fell from 28,200 to 27,100 – it has risen constantly since then during the second wave and is now 23 times higher than it was before schools and universities went back.
A lab error, however, means the ONS cannot estimate how many people are catching the virus each day.
The statisticians usually publish the number weekly and last Friday said there were 38,900 daily cases in the week to November 14. This had fallen by 10,000 a day from 47,700 a week earlier, and another decline was expected this week as the effects of the second lockdown filter through into statistics.
ONS data, considered to be the most accurate picture of England's outbreak, were published a day early as the Department of Health announces which areas will face tough local lockdowns when the national rules are lifted next week.
The East Midlands, which includes Leicester, Derby, Peterborough and Nottingham, was the only part of England to see its outbreak grow in the most recent week. Infection rates fell in every other region.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock spoke in the House of Commons this morning when he revealed most of the country will still be banned from meeting up with other people indoors or going to the pub. A detailed list of tier measures has been announced and they will last until a brief hiatus over Christmas.
Much of the North of England, including Greater Manchester, Newcastle and the North East, most of Yorkshire and much of the Midlands will remain in the toughest Tier Three rules which will force restaurants to stay closed and ban socialising everywhere except in parks, beaches or other public outdoor spaces.
All but three places will be plunged into Tier Three or Two (shown in red and orange) when England's national shutdown ends on Wednesday
The Department of Health today announced the new lockdown tiers that England will be divided into when the national lockdown ends on December 2
'In recent weeks, the positivity rate in England has shown signs of levelling,' the report said.
Oxford University biologist Professor James Naismith, who is not involved with the ONS's work, said today: 'The prevalence is decreasing as social restrictions have their effect.
'There is further good news in that the number of daily new hospital admissions are falling and the number of people in intensive care has levelled off.
'Sadly, as we say yesterday with 696 deaths announced, it takes time for the gains in social restrictions to feed through. It is not unalloyed good news, the ONS data suggest that some areas of the country prevalence may have increased. Obviously, the measures were designed to lower the incidence everywhere.
'As we approach Christmas, there is a great deal of uncertainty about what will happen.'
Test and Trace fails to reach more than 60 per cent of close contacts for sixth week in a row
Test and Trace has failed to reach more than 60 per cent of close contacts of people who tested positive for the virus for the sixth week in a row.
Figures from the Department of Health show it got hold of 60.3 per cent of close contacts in the seven-day spell to November 18. It has not made it above 61 per cent since the first week of October, when 63.2 per cent of close contacts were contacted and told to self-isolate.
As many as 137,000 out of almost 350,000 people who were near someone who tested positive for the virus for more than 15 minutes were missed, the highest number since the system was launched in May.
The failure means thousands of people who may be infected with the virus are continuing to walk high streets and catch public transport, potentially spreading the disease further.
For Covid-19 cases, tracers reached fewer than they did in the week before.
They got hold of 84.9 per cent - or 21,000 people out of almost 157,000 - in the latest week for which data is available. This is down from the 85.9 per cent reached in the previous week.
Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth warned in the Commons today that the system - thought to have already cost £22billion - was not giving taxpayers value for money.
Its former Talk Talk executive boss Baroness Dido Harding has come under mounting pressure to quit due to the service's dire performance, and pass the roll over to someone with experience in the health sector.
The ONS report shows that there are still big differences in infection rates across the country and they are still high in much of the North.
Three times as many people are thought to be infected in Yorkshire and the Humber than in the East of England, which had, respectively, infection rates of 1.9 per cent – one in every 53 people – and 0.6 per cent – one in 167.
North West, North East, East Midlands and West Midlands all have higher infection rates than the England average, which was around 1.2 per cent.
London, the South East and the South West all had lower than average rates, alongside the East of the country.
The percentage of people thought to be carrying the virus rose only in the East Midlands last week, while falling in all other places.
Infections also went down in all but one age group, the data show, with the spread of the virus increasing again among teenagers.
'Over the last week, increases in the positivity rate can only be seen in secondary school-age children and positivity rates have decreased in adults aged 35 years and over,' the report said.
'It appears that rates among the youngest age group as well as those aged school year 12 to age 24 years and 25 to 34 years are levelling off; rates remain highest among secondary school-age children and young adults.'
This week's infection survey is based on the results of 202,607 swab tests done in the previous fortnight, of which 2,659 returned positive results from 2,440 people.
The data usually provide an estimate of how many people are getting infected with coronavirus each day, but this week did not do so.
By way of explanation the ONS said: 'This week, there have been some issues with the data from one of the laboratories, which has introduced greater uncertainty...
'Because of the significant amount of quality assurance conducted for estimates of positivity rates, we have not been able to include incidence data this week but it will be available next week as normal.'
It said there was a problem with tests that were being processed at the laboratory in Milton Keynes, which is one of the biggest in the country.
Tests going through that lab, the ONS said, had been taken out of the results because the percentage of them which were positive 'increased very substantially and abnormally' after technicians reported contamination of the chemicals used during the process. The results from those tests would be reviewed, the researchers said.
Although removing the wrong test results had a 'negligible result' on the published data, the ONS said, the impact may have been larger on the daily cases number because it is so much lower and vulnerable to hiccups.
The ONS report comes as the Government today laid out what will happen when England's national lockdown ends next week.
The country will revert back to a three-tiered local system, albeit a tougher one than the one used in the summer and early autumn, in which scientists say tiers one and two weren't effective.
Although London and Liverpool were spared the harshest Level Three in small glimmers of light, just 700,000 people - one per cent of the population - will be subject to the loosest grade of restrictions.
Meanwhile, around 55million residents will be in the toughest two Tiers after the blanket national lockdown ends on December 2, according to the breakdown released today.
Tier 3 will be imposed on huge swathes of the country including all of Kent, Greater Manchester and Lancashire, much of the Midlands and Bristol - putting a wrecking ball through pubs, restaurants and clubs now forced to close.
Only Cornwall, Scilly and the Isle of Wight have been put into the loosest tier, which allows socialising inside homes and pubs subject to the Rule of Six.
As a result most of England will be banned from socialising indoors with other households, apart from five days over Christmas. Pubs will only be able to serve alcohol with 'substantial' meals.
Tory rebel ringleader Steve Baker warned that the government must explain how it is balancing the economic harm with public health.
'The authoritarianism at work today is truly appalling. But is it necessary and proportionate to the threat from this disease?' he tweeted.
'On the economy and on coronavirus, I fear we are now so far down the rabbit hole that we have forgotten we even entered it.'
London was spared after data showed coronavirus falling quickly in more than two-thirds of boroughs - and seemingly stalling in the rest.
Liverpool has also run a successful campaign to control its outbreak after mass testing in the city.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock formally unveiled the breakdown of areas in the Commons after days of wrangling, saying the country has to stay 'vigilant'.
He also defended the criteria being used amid complaints that they are too vague and amount to 'finger in the air'.
But amid shambolic scenes the government set an online postcode checker live beforehand.
As residents, journalists and MPs scrambled to gather the news on what decisions had been taken, the website then promptly crashed under the weight of traffic.
Tier 3 means that millions of people would face a ban on households mixing indoors and outdoors, and pubs will be only be able to provide takeaway service or must close altogether.
The Prime Minister has put most of England in Tier 2 and Tier 3 despite being told it was 'hard to justify' when cases are now falling in every region of the country.