Virus in Reverse Across U.K. as Johnson Plots Lockdown Exit

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The U.K. government said it is “confident” the country’s coronavirus epidemic is shrinking, as the reproduction rate of the disease dropped to levels last seen in July.

The latest so-called R number for the U.K. is between 0.7 and 0.9, according to official estimates published Friday, down from 0.7 to 1.0 last week. It means that on average, every ten people infected with the virus are passing it on to between seven and nine others. The last time the upper end of the range was below 1 was on July 31 last year, after the first wave of infections.

The figures provide a boost for Boris Johnson as the prime minister prepares to unveil a road map out of lockdown on Feb 22, after the most vulnerable people in the country have been vaccinated. He has said some schools could reopen from March 8, followed by the lifting of other restrictions over time.

The U.K. reported 15,144 cases of coronavirus in the U.K. on Friday, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 4,013,799 -- the highest number in Europe.

More than 14 million people in the U.K. have now had their first dose of a vaccine. That puts the government on course to meet its target to vaccinate the most vulnerable 14.6 million people and carers by Feb. 15.

Separate data from the Office for National Statistics showed coronavirus infections fell for a fourth week, with around one in 80 people in England having the disease in the period to Feb 6. That’s down from around one in 65 people the previous week.

But the government cautioned that case numbers remain high and people should stick to lockdown measures. Scientists are also urging ministers to take a cautious approach and only begin easing lockdown when cases reach very low levels. They believe restrictions should then be eased in stages, with delays in between to test the impact of easements on case numbers and hospitalizations.

“We still have lots of work to do to defeat this virus, but we’re making great progress,” Health Secretary Matt Hancock said on Twitter.

In London, which was hit particularly badly during the winter wave of infections, the R rate is estimated at 0.6 to 0.8.

Johnson also faces mounting pressure from some members of his own Conservative Party to begin easing virus restrictions and get schools reopened. They’re also demanding assurances there will not be another lockdown.

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