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Busy tube platform
Photograph: Alena Veasey/Shutterstock.com

London now has the lowest infection rate in the UK

New evidence shows that the vital R value for the capital is half that of some places in the country

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Official figures from a study by Public Health England and the University of Cambridge suggest that London now has the lowest rate of coronavirus infection of anywhere in the UK. The crucial ‘R’ reproduction value – the number of new people infected by each existing case – now stands at about 0.4 in the capital; ie, each person with the virus will infect 0.4 more people, or, more plainly, if ten people are already infected, the result will be four new cases. This compares to an average R value of around 0.75 across the country, with a higher rate in areas such as the North East. The prime minister in his statement on Sunday May 10 and the document Our Plan to Rebuild said that the country needs to maintain an R value below 1 to continue easing lockdown.

The result is that London is now only reporting about 24 new cases a day. This compares to more than 200,000 at the height of the pandemic before lockdown.

Great news, right? Yes. And also… maybe. The R rate is determined by a number of factors which can make it imprecise: time delay in reporting of cases, for instance. So while there is no doubt that it is significantly lower in London than it has been at any time since the start of the crisis, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s all over bar the shouting (and recriminatory finger-pointing).

It’s also important to remember that ‘new cases’ are officially diagnosed new cases – people who have definitely tested positive for the virus or been hospitalised. For every medically confirmed case of Covid-19, it is accepted that a lot more people have it either asymptomatically or presenting only mild symptoms. These people are still infectious but could be less cautious about self-isolating as lockdown eases.

Finally, lockdown itself. As London struggled with the greatest numbers of coronavirus cases in the UK, as well as the highest death rate from the virus, its lockdown was a disproportionately dramatic change to people’s ways of living, working, shopping and socialising. Tube journeys dropped by 95 percent, bus travel by 85 percent. Rush hour effectively became a thing of the past. Pubs, bars and restaurants closed along with theatres, cinemas and music venues. Opportunities for spreading the virus were suddenly enormously reduced. But it hasn’t gone away. Stories this week of newly packed tube trains and buses are ominous. If the capital goes back to work, there is potential for the R rate to rise again. Previous pandemics, including the Spanish Influenza outbreak in 1918 have seen second spikes after it was assumed that the worst was over, sometimes with far more devastating results than then initial wave.

For now, though, this is a welcome bit of good news for our city, and a testament to how Londoners have accepted the confines of lockdown and made it effective. But it’s way too soon to collectively giving ourselves a socially distanced pat on the back.

Need an incentive to steer clear of the tube? Fares are set to rise after lockdown.

Plans are also afoot to change the way Londoners use public transport.

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