How does R rate vary by region?
New figures from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies released on January 22 showed that the South West, Midlands and Northwest of England have the highest R number: 0.9 to 1.2.
The regional figures have further revealed that the R number within the North East and Yorkshire is now between 0.8 and 1.1. In the South East, the value is between 0.7 and one, meanwhile in London, the R number is between 0.7 and 0.9.
However, experts are divided as to the relevance of the regional data, as it is unclear to what extent the different R values are driven by outbreaks in care homes and hospitals, which pose less of a threat to the average person than infections in the community.
The R is lowest in the East of England, at between 0.6 and 0.9. Across England, the R is 0.8-1.0.
The Department of Health and Social Care said the R is estimated to be below 1 in areas that have been under tighter restrictions the longest, such as Tier 4 over Christmas, which included London, the East of England and the South East.
However, scientists have warned that despite the reductions, case levels “remain dangerously high and we must remain vigilant to keep this virus under control, to protect the NHS and save lives”.
Sage scientists said: “It is essential that everyone continues to stay at home, whether they have had the vaccine or not.
“We all need to play our part, and if everyone continues to follow the rules, we can expect to drive down the R number across the country.”
In England, the percentage of people testing positive remained high but decreased slightly in the week ending 16 January 2021.
The ONS estimates that 1,023,700 people within the community population in England had COVID-19, equating to around 1 in 55 people, down from one in 50 from December 27 to January 2.
This is a snapshot of the average number of infections recorded by ONS taken at weekly intervals.
Would reopening schools affect the rate?
The other problem is that the R rate can vary not just regionally, but also by subsections of the population.
“Nobody catches it by passing someone on the street,” said one Government expert. “That isn’t how you get it. This is now epidemic of care homes and hospitals.”
As Gavin Williamson suggested schools could open before Easter, questions have been raised over whether the move could see the R rate rise again, but there is little evidence to show that will happen.
Research published last April, by University College London (UCL), suggested that schools only play a small role in transmission, perhaps accounting for two to four per cent of deaths and 10 per cent of the R-rate.
Those estimates were based on the entire school population without extra measures, such as social distancing, so the impact is likely to be even smaller with class sizes restricted to 15 and communal tables replaced by traditional single desks.
Speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show Dr Swaminathan, who specialises in paediatrics, said: “Children don’t seem to be getting seriously ill from this infection.
“We do know that children are capable of getting the infection, but there’s less data on how effectively they are able to spread it to others. What we have seen in countries where schools have remained open is that there have not been big outbreaks in schools.
“Where there have been it has been associated with events where a lot of people gather, not in regular classrooms and it’s often been associated with an adult, who has the infection and who has spread it. The risks to children are extremely low.”
A study by the Lancet, published on Dec 8, supported the “notion that opening of schools despite SARS-CoV-2 circulation in the community is largely safe for children, but secondary schools in particular might nevertheless play a considerable role in transmission between households.”
Coronavirus infection rates among students and staff in schools were linked to those found in the wider community at the peak of the second wave, one of the largest studies in schools has found.
The Schools Infection Survey ( SIS ), a partnership between Public Health England ( PHE ), the Office for National Statistics and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine ( LSHTM ) tested nearly 10,000 students and staff across England in November.
Dr Shamez Ladhani, a consultant at PHE and the study’s chief investigator, said:”While there is still more research to be done, these results appear to show that the rate of infection among students and staff attending school closely mirrors what’s happening outside the school gates. “