Daily coronavirus infections in England have fallen significantly for the first time during the second wave, figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) showed on Friday.

The official ‘R’ rate has also dropped to between 1.0 and 1.1, down from 1.0 to 1.2 last week, and the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) said it was no longer confident that the rate was above one.

The ‘R’ value is several weeks out of date so does not reflect the impact of the national lockdown restrictions, which began on November 5. Government scientists think the Covid epidemic could now be in retreat. 

The latest ONS surveillance data showed that daily infection rates in the week to November 14 were 38,900 per day, down from 45,700 the previous week – a drop of 18 per cent. The ONS said the number of people currently infected with coronavirus was "similar" to last week at 664,700.

Its figures are a more reliable reflection in the state of the pandemic, although they will still not reflect the full impact of lockdown. 

It is estimated that there are now 7.4 new infections per 10,000 people each day, down from 8.75 the previous week. The figure peaked at 9.52 for the week ending October 23. 

Katherine Kent, the co-head of analysis for the Covid-19 Infection Survey, said: "There are early signs that the national level of infections in England might be levelling off, but this hides a lot of variation at a regional level.  

"Whilst the highest levels of infection remain in the North-West and Yorkshire and the Humber, rates are now decreasing in the North-West and the East Midlands while increasing in London, the east of England and the South-East." 

Coronavirus UKLA current

Data from the Zoe app coronavirus study, run by King’s College London, suggests the UK ‘R’ value, which represents the average number of people someone with Covid-19 goes on to infect, is around one, which is seen as a stable rate of infection. But the team warned that there were "worrying signs" that cases were beginning to rise in the east of England and the Midlands.

Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London, said: "The reason we are now seeing an overall ‘R’ value of 1.0 in England is because numbers are falling in the North, rising in the Midlands and East but staying flat in the south of England. 

"The continued rise in the Midlands, despite national lockdown, is concerning. The good news is that cases in the over-60s, which account for most NHS activity, are remaining low. 

"According to the Government hospital data, admissions have only gone up slowly and most parts of the NHS have spare capacity, so as we head into December it looks like the hospitals won’t be overwhelmed with Covid admissions." 

On Friday, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said the rate of coronavirus infections appeared to be flattening due to the tighter restrictions.

However, the former Tory minister Steve Baker called for the Mr Hancock to issue a correction to "avoid any damaging misunderstandings" because the data lag means most of the drop will have occurred when regions were in tier restrictions.

"Government scientists briefing MPs were clear this week that the effects of lockdown would not be visible in the data until this weekend," Mr Baker said. "Cases may have flattened since lockdown, but any change is not yet because of lockdown. The Health Secretary knows this too.

"There is no excuse for a minister creating the impression this change was caused by lockdown. This statement should be corrected by the Health Secretary immediately to avoid any damaging misunderstandings about the interpretation of data."

England is now more than half way through a four-week national lockdown – which is due to end on December 2 – with pubs, restaurants, gyms and the majority of shops all forced to close, although schools have been allowed to remain open.

The row over the data comes after Mr Hancock said there were "promising signs that we have seen a flattening of the number of cases since lockdown was brought in". He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: "I’m calling it a flattening rather than a fall because one swallow doesn’t make a summer, but there are promising signs that lockdown is working to get the number of cases under control."

Statistician Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter backed Mr Hancock’s assessment that there was reason for positivity. "He said cases were stable – he’s being very cautious, but indeed they do seem to be showing a slow improvement," Sir David told the Today programme.