THE crucial coronavirus R rate has finally dropped below 1 as the epidemic starts shrinking, the latest data shows.
Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, today said the reproduction number is now between 0.7 and 0.9 across the UK.
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But the expert cautioned that it may be very close to 1 in some places which "means there's not a lot of room to do things".
Speaking at Downing Street during this evening's daily press briefing, he said: "The number of new infections is estimated to be roughly one in a thousand per week, it means that 54,000 new cases are occurring every week, so somewhere around eight or so thousand per day.
"That is not a low number, so it's worth remembering that we still have a significant burden of infection, we are still seeing new infections every day at quite a significant rate and the R is close to one.
"That means there is not a lot of room to do things and things need to be done cautiously, step-by-step and monitored and the Test and Trace system needs to be effective in order to manage that."
He later added: "We're at a fragile stage. We've got to be very cautious. This is not a time to say everything is going to be rosy.
"It's a time to go very cautiously with changes as they take place, monitored very carefully and being prepared for local outbreaks- because there will be – and being prepared for local measures."
It comes as the Prime Minister confirmed that all five tests required for the next phase of lockdown easing to begin have been met, adding: “The result is we can moved forward with adjusting the lockdown on Monday.”
Boris Johnson said from Monday groups of up to six people can meet in private gardens “provided those from different households continue to stick to social distancing rules” by staying two metres apart.
The R rate estimate was based on the latest modelling by a sub-group of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE).
Last week, the experts estimated the number was between 0.7 and 1.
They use data such as contacts, hospital admissions, ICU admissions and deaths, and it generally takes 2-3 weeks for changes in R to be reflected due to the time between infection and needing hospital care.
So, there is no real-time figure for R, as it reflects the situation around three weeks prior.
But the latest estimate suggests that the relaxation of some measures earlier this month have made little impact on the R value.
It comes as new figures suggest the average number of people with coronavirus in community settings in England remains "relatively stable".
However, the Office for National Statistics survey found that the infection rate among people working outside the home is around three times as high as for those working at home.
The R value – or reproduction rate – is the average number of people an infected person spreads the virus to.
It can indicate whether the epidemic is getting bigger or smaller – an R rate of above one indicates a growing epidemic, while less than one suggests the outbreak is shrinking.
At the peak of Britain's outbreak, the R rate is thought to have reached three – forcing the country into lockdown, to suppress the spread and flatten the peak.
What is the R rate?
R0, or R nought, refers to the average number of people that one infected person can expect to pass the coronavirus on to.
Scientists use it to predict how far and how fast a disease will spread – and the number can also inform policy decisions about how to contain an outbreak.
For example, if a virus has an R0 of three, it means that every sick person will pass the disease on to three other people if no containment measures are introduced.
It's also worth pointing out that the R0 is a measure of how infectious a disease is, but not how deadly.
Lockdown pushed R rate down
The strict 'stay at home' measures helped push that number down below one – varying in different regions.
Over the last few weeks, lockdown measures across the country have been eased, with more people going to work and others meeting for socially distanced catch ups in outdoors spaces.
So far in the UK more than 36,000 people have died from the virus.
But the fact that the R rate has remained steady means the UK could be entering into stable territory.
There were 361 deaths recorded in the UK yesterday – the lowest figure on a Thursday since March 26 when 103 deaths were reported.
The R rate is likely to be affected by a slight lag, due to a lag in the government's mathematical modelling.
Boris Johnson first relaxed the measures on May 13 but highlighted that if the R rate was to rise then strict measures would have to be implemented once again.
Ministers have been faced with a balancing act between keeping the R value and death rate down – and ensuring that Britain's economy does not totally collapse.
The PM made only small tweaks to the lockdown rules earlier this month when people were encouraged to return to work if they couldn't do their job from home.
Unlimited exercise was also put back on the cards while individuals are now free to meet one person from another household at a safe distance outdoors in a park.
Scientific experts have been advising the Government on how each option for unlocking the country could affect the R value.
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