BRITAIN'S biggest Covid infection survey suggests cases are now falling – driven by reduced spread in London and the South.
Scientists said the findings were "really good news" but warned levels must drop further and faster to help take pressure off the NHS.
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More than 167,000 people were swabbed across England between 6 and 22 January as part of the React study.
It shows that nationally R – the number of people each Covid cases goes on to infect – is 0.98.
And of the nine regions in England, five were seeing a fall in infections.
But cases still remain the highest recorded by the survey, with one in 64 people now carrying the virus across England.
Almost one in 100 over-65s, who are most vulnerable to the bug, also have the disease.
Researchers found London was the worst hit area with one in 35 residents of the capital infected with Covid.
React study lead Professor Paul Elliott, from Imperial College London, said: “I think we are definitely heartened by the fact that we're now seeing what looks like a decline.
“The trend is downward.
This is real and very much reflected in the regional data – particularly in London, the south east and south west.
“Even though we're seeing this suggestion of a downtick now, which is really good news, it's by no means as fast as we saw in lockdown one.
"If infections aren't brought down significantly, hospitals won't be able to cope with the number of people that need critical care.
“We all need to stay at home wherever possible and help bring the virus under control and protect our already over-stretched health system."
The findings reveal that although lockdown measures are pushing cases down slightly – more restrictions may be needed to significantly cut rates.
Scientists said it will take months before the impact of mass vaccination is will be shown.
Kevin McConway, Emeritus Professor of Applied Statistics at The Open University, said: “A fall of any kind in the number of infected people is good news, and a fall would match what we’ve seen recently in numbers of confirmed cases, but I’d want to see more data to be surer of this trend.
“We’ll get some more data…this Friday. I very much hope (and expect) that they also show evidence of falling numbers.”
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said the findings were a "stark reminder" of the need to remain vigilant.
He added: "We must bring infections right down so I urge everyone to play their part to help save lives.
"You must stay at home unless absolutely necessary, follow social distancing rules and minimise contact with others."
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