The UK’s daily coronavirus caseload has fallen below 10,000 for the first time in five months, according to the latest official figures.
A further 9,765 coronavirus cases were reported in the past 24 hours — the lowest figure since 28 September, when 9,929 infections were recorded.
The number of coronavirus-related deaths also fell to the lowest level since late October this afternoon, with 230 further fatalities reported in the past 24 hours.
It marks a significant drop since last month’s figures, with a record 1,526 deaths reported within 28 days of a positive Covid test on 14 January.
The total number of people who have died from coronavirus now stands at 117,396, with more than 4m confirmed cases recorded since the start of the pandemic.
The Prime Minister insisted the figures proved the UK was heading in the right direction, coming on the same day the government achieved its target of vaccinating the 15m most vulnerable people in the top four priority groups.
“This is an unprecedented national achievement,” Boris Johnson told this evening’s Downing Street press conference. “But it’s no moment to relax, and in fact it’s the moment to accelerate because the threat from this virus remains very real.”
The PM warned that “we still don’t have enough data” to determine whether cases are reducing as a result of current lockdown measures or progress with the nation’s vaccination programme.
Johnson said it meant he couldn’t offer a “cast iron guarantee” that the current lockdown will be England’s last, but added that the UK had seen a “big change” over the past few weeks.
“The big change is that science is now unquestionably in the ascendancy over the disease,” he said.
Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer, added that a small number of “sample case studies” meant it was still too early to answer whether the vaccination programme or lockdown measures was having the biggest effect in pushing down coronavirus cases.
“What we really want to get to is the point where we can see with the naked eye the big effects of the vaccines, rather than having to do quite complex calculations of the vaccinated against the unvaccinated which is where we are at the moment,” said Whitty.
He added that coronavirus case numbers rates and fatalities should come down “in the order in which people were vaccinated,” which appears to be the case in Israel.
Israel has seen one of the fastest vaccine rollouts in the world, with almost three-quarters of its adult population injected so far.
Clalit, the country’s largest health fund, last week looked at positive tests in 600,000 vaccinated people and the same number of unvaccinated people, matched by age and health status. It found 94 per cent fewer infections among the vaccinated group.
NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens said he wanted the “clock to run” for another fortnight “to be able to properly validate [the vaccination programme’s] impact on transmission”.