Matt Hancock promises ‘freedom is on the horizon’ as Britain winning battle against Covid

Matt Hancock: UK will have ability to certify they've had vaccine

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Death rates are halving every ­12 days while hospital admissions are falling faster than the number of new cases. A quarter of England’s population has antibodies against the virus while over-80s are showing the highest levels of protection. The Health Secretary said: “This country is on the road to recovery and we have freedom on the ­horizon. We must proceed with caution because although we are moving quickly, the virus moves quickly too.

“Let us not waver. Let us do whatever it takes to keep this virus under control.”

Mr Hancock revealed the hunt for the missing person infected with a new Brazilian variant has been narrowed to 379 households in south-east England.

Six cases of the Manaus mutation have been found but one ­victim failed to leave contact details after their test last month.

MPs were told there is no ­evidence to show the variant has spread further.

Mr Hancock added: “We’ve identified the batch of home test kits in question, our search has narrowed from the whole country down to 379 households…and we’re contacting each one.

“Our current vaccines have not yet been studied against this variant and we’re working to understand what impact it might have, but we do know that it has caused significant challenges in Brazil, so we’re doing all we can to stop the spread in the UK, to analyse its effects and to develop an updated vaccine that works on all variants of concern and protect the progress we’ve made as a nation.”

Mr Hancock said a third Covid jab may be needed in the autumn to guard against new variants.

By Monday, 21,322,717 shots had been given in the UK, with 844,098 of those second doses.

More than seven million people are now living in areas with near zero Covid levels. Analysis of Public Health England figures showed 971 of 6,791 neighbourhoods with a total population of around 7.3 million had fewer than three cases in the week to February 23.

Large parts of Cornwall, Devon and Wiltshire appear almost virus-free, along with affluent areas of London and some districts of other cities.

Ben Bradshaw, Exeter Labour MP, questioned why residents in Devon, where the rate is 31 per 100,000, must be locked down beyond Easter when the vulnerable will have been inoculated.

Mr Hancock said the regional tier system has been dropped.

He added: “One of the challenges we found was people travelling from parts of the country where rates are higher to those where they are lower.

“So whilst we don’t rule out a localised approach to outbreaks, we are going to move down the road map as a nation.”

A further 343 people died within 28 days of a positive test by yesterday, taking the total to 123,296. There were also 6,391 more lab-confirmed cases.

Office for National Statistics records released yesterday showed Covid deaths among the over-80s more than halved from the week ending January 29 to the week ending February 19 at 56 per cent, compared with 40 per cent for the under-70s.

Mr Hancock said it showed the vaccination programme, which targeted the oldest and most ­vulnerable first, is working.

He said: “The number of deaths each day is not only falling faster than after the first peak, but it is falling faster in the over-80s, who got the jab first, compared with the under-80s.

“The number of daily deaths is halving every 12 days. But among the over-80s it is now halving every 10, so while the fall in cases is decelerating, the fall in the ­number of deaths is accelerating.

“This shows the vaccine is working, reducing the number of deaths among those who were vaccinated first and preventing hospital admissions.

“This is real-world evidence the vaccine is protecting the NHS and saving lives, that the 12-week dosing regime is saving lives, and that this country’s ­strategy is working.”

Prof Sir David Spiegelhalter, a statistician from the University of Cambridge, said: “The latest death registrations refer to events from a few weeks ago. But if we look at what is happening every day, we can see deaths in the over-65s – one of the vaccinated age groups – are now halving every week.

“Frankly, it is better than anyone expected.”

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