Covid deaths and infection numbers are dropping - here's how vaccines are impacting the pandemic

Since a third national lockdown began, the country has waited with bated breath to see if the restrictions and vaccine rollout have had a positive impact in the fight against Covid.

Figures around daily infection rates, hospital admissions and deaths are constantly in the public spotlight, with declining numbers offering some hope the end of the pandemic is on the horizon.

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Yet, with the number of excess deaths 40% above the five-year average, the spotlight remains on how fast the vaccine and lockdown are working in protecting the most vulnerable in society.

Latest findings from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and Imperial College London’s React study sheds light on these very issues.

Is lockdown working?

According to the React study, the number of people being infected by Covid in England has declined from January to February - but the overall rate remains high.

The research, which saw more than 85,000 swab tests carried out across England between 4-13 February, showed coronavirus infections had dropped to one in 200 people testing positive.

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Figures showed the R number is 0.72 and the number of infections is halving every 14.6 days.

Though there is a decline in the spread of the disease across England, due to the lockdown, the levels of infection are a similar level to those observed in late September 2020.

The number of patients in hospital being treated with Covid remains higher than at the peak of the first wave in April 2020, according to the preprint, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.

Why has the government offered words of caution?

Health secretary Matt Hancock said: “These findings show encouraging signs infections are now heading in the right direction across the country, but we must not drop our guard.

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“Cases and hospital admissions remain high – over 20,000 Covid-19 patients are in hospital – so it is vital we all remain vigilant and follow the rules as our vaccination rollout continues at pace.

“I urge everyone to continue to stay at home – remember hands, face, space – and get your jab when you receive your invite.”

Is the vaccine working?

The UK began its vaccination programme on 8 December by administering the Pfizer / BioNtech vaccine to people aged 80 and over in the top priority group.

New findings, published by the ONS, has revealed more over 80s have tested positive for coronavirus antibodies than any other age group in England.

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People have antibodies in their blood if they have previously had a Covid infection in the last few months or if they have had a vaccine.

Of the over 80s group, 41% tested positive for antibodies which was "most likely due to the high vaccination rate in this group,” said the ONS.

Younger age groups who were more likely to be exposed to the virus were previously more likely to test positive for antibodies, until now.

How long does it take to build up immunity?

It is thought that it takes between two and three weeks before the body builds up immunity to Covid after vaccination, meaning those jabbed first (over 80s) should now have antibodies.

How long do antibodies last after a vaccine?

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Research around how long antibodies stay in the blood system after infection or a vaccine is ongoing, due to the virus being new to experts.

Esther Sutherland, principal statistician for the Covid-19 Infection Survey, said: “Antibody positivity rates have increased across all four nations and the effects of the vaccination programmes have begun to appear, especially in the older age groups.

“In England those aged 80 and over currently have the highest percentage of antibody positivity, most likely due to the high vaccination rate in this group.

“In Wales and Scotland those aged 16 to 24 years old have the highest percentage and in Northern Ireland it’s in 25 to 34-year-olds.

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“We would expect younger groups to have high levels of antibody positivity after the period of high infection rates we have seen in the last few months.

“We will continue to closely monitor antibodies as the UK vaccination programmes continue to be rolled out.”

How does England compare to other countries?

It is estimated that 18.5% of the adult population in England have antibodies, which accounts to around 8.3 million people over the age of 16.

Those numbers fall slightly across the UK for Wales (14.4% of the adult population), Northern Ireland (13.6%), and Scotland (11.7%) - but the numbers are increasing.