The number of coronavirus patients in hospitals in the UK has fallen below the April peak of 21,687 for the first time this year.
Latest official figures show 20,929 Covid-19 patients were in hospital on Saturday and 21,001 on Sunday, a significant drop from 26,894 and 26,780 the weekend before.
The last time figures were seen at this level were on Christmas Eve (21,569) and Christmas Day (20,910), before the numbers of patients being treated for the virus in hospitals across the UK peaked at 39,241 on January 18.
Inpatient totals have far exceeded those seen during the first wave of the pandemic.
It comes as the prime minister was urged against easing lockdown too quickly amid warnings that the NHS would likely remain “at full stretch” for at least another six weeks.
Boris Johnson will examine data this week on Covid-19 case numbers, hospital admissions, deaths and the impact of the vaccine rollout as he prepares to unveil his proposals from February 22 for how and when the national lockdown will be unwound.
He is expected to reveal a series of target dates by which the government wants to reopen different sections of society and has repeatedly said he wants the lifting of restrictions to be “cautious but irreversible”.
Speaking on Monday, he said: “The dates that we will be setting out will be the dates by which we hope we can do something at the earliest. It’s the target date.”
But he warned the government would not “hesitate” to keep restrictions in place if the infection rate was too high.
In a letter to Johnson, the chief executive of NHS Providers – which represents NHS trusts in England – has asked the prime minister to focus on “data, not just dates” to decide the route out of lockdown.
Case numbers were “still far too high” and the NHS remained “at full stretch”, said Chris Hopson, something trust leaders believe will continue for at least another six to eight weeks.
“The evidence on Covid-19 cases, NHS capacity, progress with vaccinations and readiness to combat Covid-19 variants all show that it is much too early to start lifting restrictions,” he wrote.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4′s Today programme on Wednesday, Hopson said the nation was “still some way away” from being able to start relaxing restrictions.
“I think if you look at where we are against those four tests, each one of them tells you that we’re still some way away from being able to start relaxing restrictions,” he said.
“We had 500 Covid patients in hospitals in September and yet, 15 weeks later, we had 34,000 patients, and we were perilously close to overwhelmed. So, what that says to you is that you just need to be really careful before you start relaxing the restrictions prematurely.”