England’s coronavirus R rate has risen to between 1.0 and 1.1, meaning the virus is no longer in decline in the country, scientists advising the government have said.
Official figures published on Friday showed the rate had risen slightly from last week, when it was between 0.9 and 1.1.
The R rate measures the number of people, on average, that each sick person will infect.
If R is greater than 1 the epidemic is generally seen to be growing; if R is less than 1 the epidemic is shrinking.
If it is exactly 1, it is staying at the same level.
The government is expecting Covid cases to increase as lockdown restrictions are lifted, but is hoping that the successful vaccine rollout can break the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths.
But there are concerns about the spread of the Covid variant first detected in India, and the possibility that it could force a delay to the final stage of lockdown lifting on June 21.
Health secretary Matt Hancock on Thursday said that up to three-quarters of new coronavirus cases in the UK were the India variant.
A total of 6,959 cases of the variant have now been confirmed in the UK, according to Public Health England.
Hancock said the vaccination programme was having the effect of “severing” the link between cases, hospitalisations and deaths.
But experts said on Friday that the next few weeks will be crucial in determining whether coronavirus restrictions in England can be lifted next month.
Current data suggests that although hospital admissions are rising in some parts of the country affected by the India variant, overall admissions remain broadly flat.
Some experts on Friday argued that restrictions should remain in place until more of the population have received both vaccine doses, with Professor Christina Pagel, from University College London and a member of Independent Sage, saying reopening should be delayed for a few more months.
But the chief executive of industry body UK Hospitality, Kate Nicholls, said it was “absolutely critical” that the remainder of the hospitality sector is allowed to unlock on June 21.
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng said on Friday “there’s nothing in the data that suggests to me that we should move the day” of June 21, when all legal limits on social contact are due to be lifted in England.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “The caveat obviously is the data can change. So if scientific evidence data points to an increased hospitalisation rate, increased degree of risk, then we have flexibility to move that date.”
But he added: “As of today, as of the data I’ve seen, I didn’t think we will move the date.
“But I can’t guarantee that on May 28, you will appreciate I cannot guarantee that in three-and-a-half weeks’ time.”