The UK’s four chief medical officers and NHS England’s national medical director have agreed the Covid-19 alert level should move from five – its highest – down to four as the risk of the NHS being overwhelmed within 21 days “has receded”.
The decision was made following advice from the Joint Biosecurity Centre and in light of the latest figures on the coronavirus pandemic.
However, the officials warned that health services “remain under significant pressure with a high number of patients in hospital”, adding that numbers are “consistently declining” due to the public adhering to lockdown restrictions.
According to government data, there are 16,800 people in UK hospitals receiving treatment for coronavirus.
The government also recorded 9,985 more cases on Thursday, down 17 per cent from the week before. A total of 323 deaths were added to the official fatality toll, a weekly fall of almost 30 per cent.
Public Health England figures separately showed that 134 out of 149 local authorities saw a reduction in their outbreaks over the past week, with infection rates in all regions and age groups across the country at their lowest levels since 20 September.
The latest Test and Trace figures meanwhile showed that a total of 84,310 people tested positive for Covid-19 in England at least once in the week to 17 February. This is down 21 per cent on the previous week and is the lowest number since the week to 30 September.
But despite the decision to lower the UK’s Covid alert level, the four chief medical officers warned “we should be under no illusions” over the severity of the current situation, with deaths and infections still dangerously high.
“In time, the vaccine will have a major impact and we encourage everyone to get vaccinated when they receive the offer. However, for the time being it is really important that we all – vaccinated or not – remain vigilant and continue to follow the guidelines,” the health chiefs said in a statement.
“We know how difficult the situation has been and remains to be for healthcare workers, we thank them for their immense effort, skill and professionalism throughout the pandemic.”
NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson said the alert level may have dropped but there was a "long way to go yet".
He said that "no one in NHS [is] anywhere near declaring this phase of battle won".
“Weekly case rates across the UK are 115 per 100,000 people compared to the 25 we would need to de-escalate to level 3,” he added.
“We must not squander the progress of recent weeks by letting down our guard now. It’s vital that everyone continues to follow the restrictions.”
The alert level was raised to its highest level on 4 January, when the prime minister, Boris Johnson, announced England’s third national lockdown.
Lowering the alert level comes after Mr Johnson revealed his roadmap out of lockdown on Monday, which would see restrictions being lifted gradually over the coming months in England.
The government hopes to lift all legal limits on social contact by June, effectively ending lockdown. However, how closely Britain will be able to stick to the timetable set out in the roadmap is dependent on the infection rate and the success of the vaccine rollout.
The latest figures from NHS England suggest that one in five adults in England under 70 have received their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, with an estimated 20.3 per cent of people aged between 16 and 69 having received a jab as of 21 February.
In total, 18,691,835 people in the UK have now received a first dose of Covid-19 vaccine, according to government figures.
Additional testing is also set to be rolled out across parts of east and west London to suppress the spread of the South African coronavirus variant.
The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) on Thursday said additional testing and genomic sequencing is being deployed in Ealing after a "small number" of new cases of the variant were found.
Further surge testing is also to be carried out in a "targeted area" of the IG1 postcode area of Redbridge, east London, where the variant has also been found, it added.
The department said: “Working in partnership with the London Borough of Ealing, additional testing and genomic sequencing is being deployed within the borough, where a small number of additional cases of the Covid-19 variant first identified in South Africa have been found.”
Improvements are continuing to be made nationally with England’s Test and Trace programme.
Some 86.8 per cent of people who were tested for Covid-19 in the week ending 17 February at a regional site, local site or mobile testing unit – a so-called "in-person" test – received their result within 24 hours.
This is up slightly from 85.4 per cent the previous week, and is the highest figure since the week to 8 July.
Mr Johnson had pledged that by the end of June 2020, the results of all in-person tests would be back within 24 hours.
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