Figures have shown a weekly fall in coronavirus case rates nationally, but it has emerged that 40 cases of a new variant found in South Africa have been detected in the North West.

Public Health England said it had identified the cases which feature the spike protein mutation E484K across Merseyside, Warrington and parts of Lancashire.

It comes as a government-backed study is beginning to determine if different coronavirus vaccines can be used for the first and second doses to help people build better defences against the virus.

The programme, which has received £7 million in funding from the government’s Vaccine Taskforce, aims to establish whether a mixed-dose vaccine regimen is better than, or a good alternative to, using two doses of the same Covid-19 jab.

England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty warned the pace of the vaccine roll out will inevitably slow as more people get their second jab.

At a Downing Street press conference yesterday he said suggestions all adults in the UK could get their first dose by the end of May and the second by the end of August were “very optimistic”.

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The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, has hailed the “colossal” effort by health workers in getting a first jab to more than 10 million people – almost a fifth of the adult population – across the four nations.

However, England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam, who is the senior responsible officer for the new study, said that being able to mix vaccines would give them greater flexibility in future.

“Given the inevitable challenges of immunising large numbers of the population against Covid-19 and potential global supply constraints, there are definite advantages to having data that could support a more flexible immunisation programme, if needed and if approved by the medicines regulator,” he said.

“It is also even possible that by combining vaccines, the immune response could be enhanced giving even higher antibody levels that last longer; unless this is evaluated in a clinical trial we just won’t know.”

The Com-Cov study, will initially look at mixing doses of the Oxford University/AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines, and different intervals between doses.

West Midlands Mayor Andy Street has issued a heartfelt tweet after his mum died of coronavirus.

Downing Street said the government was continuing to work on how to introduce the quarantine policy successfully.

“The government continues to work on how we will ensure that we introduce this policy successfully,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.

“There are operational aspects of the policy that need to be completed and once they are we will set out the full details next week.”

The spokesman said a number of departments were working on the policy, but could not confirm who was ultimately in control.

Boris Johnson made a “genuine error” by stating that an announcement on quarantine hotels for international arrivals would be made on Thursday.

The Prime Minister told a Downing Street press conference on Wednesday evening that the Health Secretary would set out the plans the following day.

It was a genuine error… there is a statement by the vaccines minister in the House later today, but that is on vaccine deployment.

We are continuing to work on the operational side and we will set out more detail next week.”

The minister told MPs that he was “pleased” by the news about the effectiveness of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, adding: “This is, of course, really great news for us all.

“But we will not rest on our laurels – no one is really safe until the whole world is safe.

“Our scientific pioneers will keep innovating so we can help the whole world in our collective fight against this virus.”

Data from a study by the University of Oxford released this week suggested a single dose of the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine offers protection of 76 per cent for up to three months and may reduce transmission by 67 per cent – with efficacy rising to 82.4 per cent after the second dose 12 weeks later.

The Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee asked about mutation variants and a worse-case scenario “that we see a variant that is wholly immune to the vaccines that we are distributing.”

There are 4,000 mutations around the world, Nadhim Zahawi said. “Not only are we working with the current manufacturers, but we are also making sure we make the most of this messenger vaccine technology”, the Vaccines Minister replied.

Mr Zahawi told MPs there is “greater traction” with care home staff to encourage them to get vaccinated.

“There is a real excitement in the scientific community because of the messenger RNA vaccine, to start to think of cancer vaccines as well.”

Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said our nation is “getting safer every day” as vaccines are rolled out.

He said that the opening of new vaccine sites will enable the most vulnerable to be given their jabs “even quicker”.

We are boosting our supply of vaccines and our portfolio now stands at over 400 million doses – some of which will be manufactured in the United Kingdom – and we are opening more vaccination sites too.

I am pleased to inform the House that 39 new sites have opened their doors this week, along with 62 more pharmacy-led sites.

There are now 89 large vaccination centres and 194 sites run by high street pharmacies, along with 1,000 GP-led surgeries and over 250 hospital hubs.

Today’s announcement will mean that even more people will live close to a major vaccination site so we can make vaccinating the most vulnerable even quicker and even simpler.”

Fire crews across the south of England have taken a break from tackling blazes to help fight coronavirus instead.

Firefighters who have volunteered to administer jabs said training by staff at Solent NHS Trust had been “reassuringly thorough” and it had been a “privilege” to be part of the programme.

On Monday, Basingstoke fire station became one of four mass vaccination hubs to open across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, which have delivered more than 1,000 jabs daily.

The station has been specially adapted for vaccine rollout, with the fire pole covered up and noise from call-out sirens isolated, so as to not shock patients.

Crews now drive special routes out of the station and have been told not to start sirens until they are clear of the area.

Scotland has recorded 53 deaths from coronavirus and 1,149 positive tests in the past 24 hours, Nicola Sturgeon said.

It brings the death toll under this measure – of people who first tested positive for the virus within the previous 28 days – to 6,322.

Speaking during the Scottish government’s daily briefing, Ms Sturgeon said 183,418 people have now tested positive in Scotland, up from 182,269 the previous day.

The daily test positivity rate is 4.9 per cent, down from 5.1 per cent on the previous 24 hours.

Of the new cases, 339 are in Greater Glasgow and Clyde, 190 in Lanarkshire, and 159 in Lothian.

There are 1,812 people in hospital confirmed to have the virus, down 53 in 24 hours, and 127 patients are in intensive care, down four.

Knowing how to mix Covid-19 vaccine doses will put the UK in a leadership position when it comes to helping the world tackle the coronavirus pandemic, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi has said.

He said that understanding more about how to use different coronavirus jabs together will also allow the nation to hold a “much stronger position” in its own vaccination programme.

It comes as a first-of-its-kind study is launched in the UK to determine whether different coronavirus vaccines can safely be used for the first and second doses.

The research will initially include the Oxford University/AstraZeneca and Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines, with more jabs added to the list once approved.

Mr Zahawi said that the trial would not have an impact on deployment of Covid-19 vaccines in the UK.

There have been a further 544 cases of coronavirus in Wales, taking the total number of confirmed cases to 194,525.

Public Health Wales reported another 35 deaths, taking the total in Wales since the start of the pandemic to 4,867.

Sir Keir Starmer said ministers should stick to their March 8 target date for reopening schools, despite classrooms in Scotland possibly opening to pupils later this month.

“All of us want schools to be open just as quickly as possible, there is huge damage done to children by being out of school,” the Labour leader told broadcasters.

“The Prime Minister said March 8 but the biggest threat is that, if we reopen on March 8, there will be disruption because, unless we vaccinate teachers and school staff, we know that they will have to self-isolate, as they did in September through to December, with disruption – we need testing in schools, we need ‘Nightingale classrooms’.

“I’d actually rather the Prime Minister sticks to the date he has got and makes sure we open fully without disruption, because I think we can all work to that date.”

An investigation has been opened into why six players and staff at Chesterfield were given the Pfizer vaccine, with local NHS officials saying it is “unacceptable to jump the queue”.

The PA news agency understands three players and three members of staff at the National League club received vaccinations at short notice last week at the Stubley Medical Centre in Dronfield.

A total of 196,257 people tested positive for Covid-19 in England at least once in the week to January 27, according to the latest Test and Trace figures.

This is down 29 per cent on the previous week and the lowest number since the week to December 16.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has warned that the UK will be back to “square one” if coronavirus variants that currently approved vaccines are not effective against enter the country and urged the government to bring in blanket quarantine measures for international arrivals.

Of course tough quarantine measures have an (economic) impact and in a sense nobody wants that.

But if a variant gets through that isn’t subject to the vaccine, we are going to be back to square one and that will have months of impact on the economy, huge damage to the economy.

So the risk is huge if we don’t secure our borders and I think most people would say, ‘For heaven’s sake, now we’ve got the vaccine being rolled out, don’t put that at risk’.”

He accused the government of being in “chaos and confusion” over hotel quarantine measures, after they appeared to be delayed until next week, adding: “Surely, before you announce arrangements like this, you’d have done the planning beforehand.”

International travel had a major impact on coronavirus death rates in the first wave of infections, a study has found.

A second Culture Recovery Fund may be needed to offer “more targeted help” to the struggling cultural sector, a senior Conservative MP said.

Julian Knight, Conservative chairman of the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, told the Commons:

The Culture Recovery Fund was a great advent but it will only go so far and it was never intended to cover three lockdowns and potentially 18 months of disruption.”

Responding, culture minister Nigel Huddleston said £400 million of Culture Recovery Fund was “held back” from the first round of allocations as a contingency to support institutions “later on in the pandemic”.

It is “sickening” that some people are using the pandemic to commit fraudulent activity, Attorney General Suella Braverman has said.

Constituents in West Bromwich East have made me aware of some of the latest scams that criminals are using to exploit members of the public at this difficult time.

These include text messages about Covid-related grants and criminals even going door to door pretending to sell vaccine doses.

Could (Ms Braverman) update us on any discussions she has had with the CPS about these specific types of fraud cases?”

These crimes where Covid is the context for exploitation and fraudulent behaviour are completely sickening.

The Director of Public Prosecutions has made it clear in his interim charging protocol that offences related to Covid, including fraud, will be prioritised and these offenders will be prosecuted.”

Of the 315 local areas in England, five (2 per cent) have seen a rise in case rates and 310 (98 per cent) have seen a fall.

Knowsley in Merseyside continues to have the highest rate in England, with 783 new cases recorded in the seven days to January 30 – the equivalent of 519.0 cases per 100,000 people.

This is down from 822.6 cases per 100,000 people in the seven days to January 23.

Corby in Northamptonshire has the second highest rate, down from 588.5 to 486.0, with 351 new cases.

Sandwell in the West Midlands is in third place, down from 784.9 to 485.0, with 1,593 new cases.

The vaccines minister has declined to put a date on when all over-50s can expect to receive a Covid-19 jab but figures suggest late March may be an option if supplies continue.

Nadhim Zahawi said a target would be set for reaching all those aged 50 to 70, as well as those with underlying conditions which put them at higher risk of serious disease, once the most vulnerable have been offered a jab by February 15.

Previously, NHS England chief executive Sir Simon Stevens has said the aim is for all over-50s and those at risk to be vaccinated by the end of April.

But pressed on BBC Breakfast about when all over-50s and higher priority groups would be vaccinated, Mr Zahawi declined to set a firm date.

We will set out our target (for vaccinating groups 5-9) after we have hit our February 15 target.

But you can do the maths. We did 600,000 in a single day – the deployment infrastructure that we’ve built can do as much vaccines as we get supply, so the limiting factor will be vaccine supply.

You can see that in the next 10 or so days, we’ve got to do another almost touching five million and so if we keep that rate up, we will very quickly go down the list of the top nine.”

Asked whether that meant it would take another 35 days from February 15 to have jabbed all 31 million people in the first nine cohorts, Mr Zahawi replied:

That assumes the supply, so I don’t want to commit to a date without going through it with a very fine toothcomb with the whole team, because our limiting factor is the supply of vaccines ultimately.

With any manufacturing process, especially one that is new, there are challenges around that, as we’ve seen in Europe and as we saw in the early days in the UK as well.”

Around one in 10 major hospital trusts in England had no spare adult critical care beds last week, NHS England figures show.

A total of 15 out of 140 acute trusts reported 100 per cent occupancy of all “open” beds each day from January 25 to 31.

These included University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust, one of the largest trusts in England, along with Brighton & Sussex University Hospitals NHS Trust and Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust.

The figure is down slightly on 18 out of 140 acute trusts that reported 100 per cent occupancy of critical care beds each day from January 18 to 24.

The leader of Manchester Council, Sir Richard Leese, has warned vaccination queue jumpers will face action – as it’s revealed more than 440,000 people in the region have received the jab so far.

Among those to have received their first round of vaccinations, 50,631 are care home residents and staff.

Meanwhile, 54,481 social care workers, which includes domiciliary workers and special school staff, 89,813 75 to 79-year-olds and 129,930 people aged 70 to 74 have had their jabs.

However, it’s understood that too many people outside the priority categories have received their first jabs through subterfuge or queue-jumping.

Officials in Wales will meet later to discuss the South African variant after three cases with no clear link to travel were identified in the country.

Health minister Vaughan Gething told Times Radio that health experts will be examining who the cases had been in contact with and where they had been “to try to pinpoint” how they became infected with the variant.

“The three are quite different instances as well, so each of them will tell us something different,” Mr Gething said.

“We’re looking at targeted testing at this point to help us as we identify more people they’ve been in contact with.

“We don’t think there’s a sensible basis to have the wider community testing that you’re seeing in England.”

This graphic demonstrates how the rates of Covid infection are falling in all 10 boroughs of Greater Manchester, along with the England average, too.

The darker colours are the highest rates of infection, but as numbers have fallen in a week, so the colours become lighter.

The number of patients waiting longer than an hour to be handed over from ambulance teams to A&E staff at hospitals in England has fallen to its lowest level this winter.

A total of 2,339 delays of more than an hour were recorded across all acute trusts in the seven days to January 31, according to figures published by NHS England.

This compares with 3,283 in the previous week, and 5,513 in the seven days to January 10 – the highest weekly figure so far this winter.

University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust reported the highest number last week for an individual trust (214 delays of more than 60 minutes), followed by the Royal Wolverhampton Trust (125) and University Hospitals Bristol & Weston NHS Foundation Trust (118).

A handover delay does not always mean a patient has waited in the ambulance. They may have been moved into an A&E department, but staff were not available to complete the handover.

Wales’ Health Minister Vaughan Gething has said there cannot be a “huge splurge of reopening” in the country despite Covid-19 rates falling since before Christmas.

He told Times Radio that the “first priority” for the Welsh government is to start a return to face-to-face teaching in some schools.

We’re hopeful that we’ll be able to start that after half-term, so from the week beginning February 22, and we think we’re going to be able to focus that on our youngest children in primary schools initially.

That’s because we do have limited headroom. So, despite all the good news about our case rates falling, they’re still just under 125 which is actually still quite high.

We had eye-watering levels before Christmas at nearly 700 cases per 100,000. So really good progress but still high and our NHS is still very pressured.

Critical care today is operating at 130 per cent of its normal capacity. So we can’t have a huge splurge of reopening because we really do think that would lead to a significant bounce-back in cases and potentially overwhelm our service.

We’ve got to go in small steps and schools are the first priority and hopefully, straight after the half-term break, we’ll be able to see our youngest children return to face-to-face learning in primary schools.”

Dr Will Welfare, Incident Director for Public Health England and Deputy Director for Health Protection at Public Health England North West, said cases of the new variant with the spike protein E484K had been identified in Warrington, across Merseyside and parts of Lancashire.

Public Health England has identified 40 cases of Covid-19 in the North West which genomic sequencing have shown to feature the spike protein mutation E484K.

PHE is monitoring the situation very closely and all necessary public health interventions are being undertaken, including enhanced contact tracing and control measures.”

He urged people to follow the guidelines, stay at home whererever possible and wash our hands, wear a face covering and keep our distance from others.

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi said there is data not yet in the public domain which backs up the 12-week dosing regime for the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

It came after a study found that the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine could offer protection of up to 76 per cent 12 weeks after a single dose.

Asked on ITV’s Good Morning Britain whether he can reassure the public that the delay between Pfizer doses is safe, Mr Zahawi said:

Our regulator, the MHRA, and the Joint Committee on Vaccination (and Immunisation, the JCVI) and the deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, and the chief medical officers of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have looked at all the data, including data from the manufacturers that isn’t in the public domain, and they are absolutely certain that this is the right dosing strategy and we will continue on that dosing strategy for the deployment.

What Pfizer has said is that it is up to the regulatory authority in each nation to make this decision, and our regulatory authority looked in detail at this, as have the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation and the chief medical officers, and I think it is the right thing to follow the expert advice of all those great scientists and experts who know what they are doing to say, actually, the up-to-12-week dosing regime is the right one.”

World Health Organisation team member Peter Daszak has tweeted a video of a journalist running by his car during his visit to Wuhan to investigate the origins of the coronavirus outbreak.

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News – Coronavirus LIVE as figures reveal fall in weekly UK case rate