After the number of new coronavirus cases reached record levels in January, daily figures now appear to be showing a decline. The initial rise in cases was thought to be due to a new strain of the virus, considered more easily transmissible than previous strains.
However, the latest daily figures (as of 1st February) show a new 18,607 cases and 406 new deaths. This places the overall death toll at 106,564. This statistic refers to the number of people that have died within 28 days of receiving a positive Covid-19 test result.
Hospital admissions have fallen, with figures showing a decrease of 622 patients in hospital with coronavirus over the same 24-hour period. And the number of vaccinations has continued to follow an upwards trend, with the latest figures showing a new 319,038 people received the first dose of a vaccine in one day, bringing the total number of people that have received at least one Covid jab to 9,296,367.
But as the UK’s vaccination program continues, 80,000 people aged 16 and over living in certain parts of Hertfordshire, Kent, London, Surrey, Southport and Walsall, are being offered urgent coronavirus tests, even if they display no symptoms of the virus.
The decision comes after cases in those areas emerged of the new South African strain of coronavirus. Random checks revealed that 11 of these new cases could not be linked to international travel.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the government would come down “hard” on the new strain.
Currently, there are many hundreds of different coronavirus variants, but not many of them are seen as concerning by the scientific community. Scientists are most interested in studying the South African variant, called 501.V2, and the recent Kent variant.
Although there is as yet no evidence to suggest the effects of the South African variant are more extreme, health officials are concerned it may be more contagious and that current vaccines might not be as effective against it.
A preliminary study has been conducted using the Pfizer vaccine against one of the mutations in the South African strain, called N501Y, using blood samples taken from 20 people. The results from this study suggest the vaccine may be effective, but more research is needed for any conclusive evidence.
Meanwhile, the AstraZeneca vaccine has created tension within the EU, following production issues in the company’s European factories.
The EU placed an order for 300 million vaccines back last August, but delays at AstraZeneca factories in Belgium and the Netherlands mean they could only receive 31 million doses in January. The EU has demanded more copies, but the company’s chief executive, Pascal Soriot has explained the UK placed its own order of 100 million doses three months prior to the EU, giving the company extra time to sort out hiccups in production.
Tensions reached a head when the European Commission suspended parts of the Brexit deal pertaining to Northern Ireland, without the UK or Republic of Ireland’s consultation, effectively creating a hard land border in Ireland to monitor the transportation of vaccines.
The decision was called a “misjudgement” and “blunder” by officials within the Commission, and was later reversed.