Covid-19 infections have fallen dramatically across England, new data shows – apart from in the North.
The biggest surveillance study shows infections dropped by two thirds nationally between January and February.
The REACT study swab tested 85,000 people during the most recent period of February 4 to 13 and put the R number nationally at 0.72.
While R was well below 1 in most regions, it was only just below in the North West, Yorkshire and the Humber.
In the North East the R reproductive value – how many people on average each confirmed case infects – was still just above 1.
Researchers at Imperial College London concluded that England’s outbreak is halving in size every fortnight.
Study lead Prof Paul Elliott said: “These encouraging results show that lockdown measures are effectively bringing infections down.
“It’s reassuring that the reduction in numbers of infections occurred in all ages and in most regions across the country.
“There has been a drop in all regions, but really a quite remarkable drop in the southern regions and also in West Midlands.
“The numbers of people in hospitals today are at a level they were at the peak of the of the first wave so I think it is a very delicate balance.
“I think we can take a lot of encouragement from the decline that we’re seeing but I would say we’re not out of the woods yet.”
Prevalence fell by two thirds compared to the last REACT report from covering the period of January 6 to 22.
The latest study conducted jointly with Ipsos MORI found that nationally one in 196 now had Covid-19.
The fall is almost a fast as that seen during the first lockdown and is even before the impact of vaccination is factored in which they expect to see in next week’s data.
Dramatic falls in cases are being seen in London and the South East but from a higher starting point.
Regional prevalence now highest in the North West at 0.91% of the population, followed by the North East at 0.82%.
There has previously been suggestions the Government wants to cut new daily confirmed Covid-19 cases to below 1,000 before lockdown is lifted.
Latest daily cases are around 10,000 but at this rate of decline the benchmark will be reached in April.
The Government insisted infections remain dangerously high with more people in hospital than at the peak last April.
Hospital admissions for Covid-19 are at around 1,600 a day.
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.
“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.”
Infection rates were last this low in late September.
R rates varied by region, lowest at 0.61 in London, followed by 0.63 in the wider South East and 0.65 in the East of England.
Co-author Prof Steven Riley said: “This is good news and a better decline that many people would have hoped for, certainly when we were thinking about it at the end of December.
“Many scientists are looking at this would have been more pessimistic about what we would see.”
The R was 0.71 in the West Midlands, 0.76 in the East Midlands, 0.82 in the South West, 0.89 in the North West and 0.92 in Yorkshire and the Humber.
Worryingly the R value for the North East was 1.02 suggesting the outbreak is still not shrinking there.
Rates are highest in five to 12 year olds, with a higher number qualifying to still attend school than the first lockdown.
Large household size, living in a deprived neighbourhood and areas with higher numbers of Asian ethnicity individuals were associated with increased prevalence.
Healthcare and care home workers were also more likely to test positive compared to other workers.