Anyone watching footage of tightly-packed and unmasked lockdown protesters in Trafalgar Square at the weekend or videos of Coventry University students holding raucous parties would be forgiven for thinking the whole country was railing against the new coronavirus restrictions the government imposed in recent weeks.
Research from Imperial College shows that while the numbers of people infected are going up the rate of increase may actually be slowing down.
The latest round of Imperial’s React study, which looked at samples taken from 84,000 people chosen at random from across England between September 18 and 26, shows that one in 200 people were infected with the virus in late September, compared with one in 800 in August.
While this is obviously a big increase in prevalence the R number - that shows how many people each infected individual transmits the virus to - has fallen from 1.47 to around 1.06.
Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of Applied Statistics at the Open University, who was not involved in the research, said while it was worrying that the infection rate had increased “obviously the most interesting news is that the rate of increase seems to be slowing,” he said.
He advised caution, adding there was some uncertainty around the 1.06 figure.
“That’s still bigger than one, indicating that each 100 infected people will on average infect 106 other people. If that continues, infections won’t fall; they will grow more slowly than was previously estimated. The tide may be advancing more slowly, but it hasn’t turned yet,” he said.
Imperial’s preliminary data, not yet published in a peer-reviewed journal, show that prevalence is highest in young people, with one per cent of 18-to-24 year olds now infected with Covid-19.
However, there has also been a seven-fold increase in the number of people aged 65 and over infected with the virus - so maybe students aren’t to blame after all?
The North West, the Midlands and London are seeing the fastest growth rates and people who are Asian and black twice as likely to test positive for the disease than white participants, the data show.
Steven Riley, professor of infectious disease dynamics at Imperial and one of the leaders of the study, said there was evidence the epidemic was “decelerating” but stressed: “We do still see a rapidly growing epidemic.”
The reason for the slower rate in growth may be down to the government’s “lockdown 2.0”, the researchers hypothesised.
“It is plausible that these measures are increasing both public awareness of the current scale of the epidemic in England and compliance with social distancing rules and other measures, such as hand-washing and wearing of face covers,” the researchers wrote.
However, they urge caution - data show that the coming weeks are likely to see an increase in deaths and admissions to hospital.
The React study - now in its fifth round - is widely regarded as an accurate indication of the spread of the disease in the country as it tests people at random and so far more than 700,000 people have taken part.
Together with recent polling data, the research may indicate that the public is more supportive of and compliant with lockdown rules than much of the reporting suggests.
Stephen Reicher, professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews and an advisor to both the Scottish and UK governments, says there is no clear data yet on how people have changed their behaviour in recent weeks. But he believes most people are sticking to the rules.
“One of the problems is that stories of non-compliance tend to trump stories of compliance. Students sitting in their rooms won’t make the news,” he told the Telegraph.
He said that recent data from Police Scotland showed that out of 440 call-outs to reports of illegal house gatherings only 13 involved a group of more than 15 people.
“The great majority were having one or two more people round than they should,” he said.
Prof Reicher said most people were following government guidance and it was the people who do not see themselves as rule breakers - who perhaps have just one or more two house guests than they should - that were perhaps the ones who are most difficult to reach.
There is no science to back meetings of six people, rather than meetings of eight, for example but "the more contacts you have the more the virus is going to spread", said Prof Reicher.
“It is the aggregation of little effects that is important here. One of the things undermining compliance is people thinking they’re not the problem and other groups - such as students - being demonised,” he said.
Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security