Britain's new COVID-19 infections dropping by 4 percent daily as vaccination push continues

The number of new COVID-19 infections in Britain is estimated to be shrinking by as much as 4 percent a day, the government said on Friday, a sharp reversal in the trajectory of the pandemic suggesting national lockdowns were beginning to take effect.

England and Scotland announced new restrictions on Jan. 4 to stem a surge in the disease fuelled by a highly transmissible variant of the coronavirus, which has led to record numbers of daily deaths and infections this month.

The latest estimates from the health ministry suggest that the number of new infections was shrinking by between 1 percent and 4 percent a day. Last week, it was thought cases were growing by much as 5 percent, and the turnaround gave hope that the spread of the virus was being curbed, although the ministry urged caution.

The closely watched reproduction "R" number was estimated to be between 0.8 and 1, down from a range of 1.2 to 1.3 last week, meaning that on average, every 10 people infected will infect between eight and 10 other people.

But the Office for National Statistics estimated that the prevalence overall remained high, with about one in 55 people having the virus.

"Cases remain dangerously high and we must remain vigilant to keep this virus under control," the health ministry said. "It is essential that everyone continues to stay at home, whether they have had the vaccine or not."

Britain has recorded more than 3.5 million infections and nearly 96,000 deaths - the world's fifth-highest toll - while the economy has been hammered. Figures on Friday showed public debt at its highest level as a proportion of GDP since 1962, and retailers had their worst year on record.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Thursday it was too early to say when lockdown restrictions could be lifted, but he hopes a mass vaccination programme will pave a way for a return to some degree of normality by the spring. Almost 5 million people have already received a first shot.

Pfizer Inc said on Friday it had finished enrolling children aged between 12 and 15 in a study testing its COVID-19 vaccine, as the US. drugmaker seeks to expand the shot's use among different age groups.

The study, which was announced in October, had enrolled over 2,000 participants, a Pfizer spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.

Vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna Inc, which are being rolled out in the United States, are not yet available for use in children due to a lack of study data.

Children rarely experience severe COVID-19 symptoms but they could still spread the virus.

Last month, Moderna also began a study to test its vaccine, which uses a similar technology as the Pfizer vaccine, in adolescents aged 12 to less than 18.

But AstraZeneca said initial deliveries to the European Union of the COVID-19 vaccine it is developing with Oxford University will fall short of the targeted volumes because of a glitch in production.

"Initial volumes will be lower than originally anticipated due to reduced yields at a manufacturing site within our European supply chain," a company spokesman said in a written statement, declining to provide details.

"We will be supplying tens of millions of doses in February and March to the European Union, as we continue to ramp up production volumes," he added. He would not provide the initial volume target.

Cases appear to be trending downwards in some European nations -  Greece will loosen more lockdown restrictions on February 1, letting high schools reopen for the first time in more than two months based on signs that the spread of COVID-19 infections has stabilised, officials said on Friday.

The country, in lockdown since early November due to a spike in coronavirus cases, has seen pressure on its public health system relent in the last few weeks.

Greece has already taken its first steps at loosening a second lockdown imposed in November, reopening primary schools and kindergartens, retail shops and hair salons.

"After a positive recommendation by the committee of experts, high schools will reopen on February 1. Students will be able to return to classrooms," Education Minister Niki Kerameos said.

Vana Papaevangelou, a member of the committee of experts advising the government, told a briefing the number of coronavirus infections had steadied in recent weeks and the occupancy rate in intensive care units was now down to 44 percent.

She said infections looked to have plateaued and were showing downward trends, with new cases averaging 477 on a daily basis. Italy's cases are also falling. 

Italy reported 472 coronavirus-related deaths on Friday, against 521 the day before, the health ministry said, while the daily tally of new infections fell to 13,633 from 14,078.

Some 264,728 tests were carried out in the past day, against a previous 267,567.

Italy has now registered 84,674 COVID-19 deaths since its outbreak came to light last February, the second-highest toll in Europe and the sixth-highest in the world. The country has also reported 2.44 million cases to date.

Patients in hospital with COVID-19 - not including those in intensive care - stood at 21,691 on Friday, down by 354 from a day earlier.

There were 144 new admissions to intensive care units, against 155 the day before. The total number of intensive care patients fell by 28 to 2,390.