Coronavirus infections remain 'alarmingly high' Boris Johnson warns
But he said: “Though today there are some signs of hope – the numbers of Covid patients in hospital are beginning to fall for the first time since the onset of this new wave – the level of infection is still alarmingly high.
“The wards of our NHS are under huge pressure with more than 32,000 Covid patients still in hospital.”
Mr Johnson, addressing a Downing Street press conference, said vaccines appear to reduce death and serious illness from the main strains of coronavirus.
England’s chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty said that while the number of people in hospital with coronavirus has “quite noticeably” reduced, it is still above that of the first peak in April last year.
He added: “The number of people in hospital with Covid has now gone down from its peak, quite noticeably…
“But as the Prime Minister said, there are still a very large number of people in hospital, and more people than there were in the first peak in April last year.
“So this is still a very major problem, but it is one that is heading the right way.”
Prof Whitty said the number of deaths would “stay high for quite some time”.
Meanwhile, the team behind the Oxford University/AstraZeneca jab has said vaccines against new coronavirus variants should be ready by October.
In a media briefing hosted by AstraZeneca, Professor Andrew Pollard, director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, said work on designing a new vaccine could be completed rapidly.
It comes after studies have shown that variants of coronavirus with the worrying E484K mutation could make vaccines less effective, though they are still expected to offer good protection against illness and severe disease.
The mutation is found in the South African variant of the virus, which has prompted surge-testing in eight postcode areas of England where community transmission is feared.
It has also been detected in Bristol in the variant first identified in Kent, and in Liverpool in a new variant of the original pandemic strain.
Prof Pollard said: “I think the actual work on designing a new vaccine is very, very quick because it’s essentially just switching out the genetic sequence for the spike protein, for the updated variants.
“And then there’s manufacturing to do and then a small-scale study.
“So all of that can be completed in a very short period of time, and the autumn is really the timing for having new vaccines available for use rather than for having the clinical trials run.”
Sir Mene Pangalos, executive vice president of biopharmaceuticals research and development at AstraZeneca, said: “Our ambition is to be ready for the next round of immunisations that may be necessary as we go into next winter. That’s what we’re aiming for.”
He continued: “We’re very much aiming to try and have something ready by the autumn. So, this year.”