Brits have been urged to ‘keep going’ with Covid rules (Image: PA)

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Coronavirus restrictions could be needed in some form until the Autumn as the new variant makes cases harder to bring down, a SAGE expert has warned.

Prof Neil Ferguson said easing the rules will only be a "gradual process" – despite signs cases are "plateauing" in some parts of the country.

It came as a second health expert, Susan Hopkins of Public Health England (PHE), today predicted England will have a “difficult time at least until Easter”. She urged people to “keep going” with lockdown rules despite a vaccine rollout ramping up.

AstraZeneca hopes to deliver 2million doses a week of its jab alone to the UK by mid-February, on top of the Pfizer jab.

Government sources claim the rollout could reach 400,000 per day in order to meet a target of inoculating the most vulnerable by February 15.

Prof Ferguson today said there is a "sign of plateauing" in cases and hospital admissions after England’s lockdown.

But asked if there could be restrictions for many months to come, he said: "Yes, and we can't predict all of these things in advance.

The latest data on case rates in the four UK nations
(Image: Press Association Images)

"We couldn't have predicted this new variant coming up, but the new variant without doubt will make the relaxation of restrictions more difficult because it is substantially more transmissible.

"So it will be a gradual process to the autumn."

Prof Ferguson, whose modelling led to the original lockdown, warned it was "much too early" to say exactly when case numbers would come down.

But offering a glimmer of hope after the daily death toll hit a new high, Prof Ferguson told the BBC: "It looks like in London in particular and a couple of other regions in the South East and East of England, hospital admissions may even have plateaued, though it is hard to tell if they are coming down.

“It has to be said this is not seen everywhere – both case numbers and hospital admissions are going up in many other areas, but overall at a national level we are seeing the rate of growth slow."

Prof Hopkins warned people were not out of the woods yet – and the UK recorded 1,564 Covid deaths yesterday, its highest daily total ever.

Cases could potentially be on the turn in south and south east England
(Image: Press Association Images)

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She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think one of the reasons why we have these rules right now is because of the seriousness to the NHS.

“If we can start bringing that down from the vaccination of the individuals now – over 80, but we get to the over-70s – that will really help us.

“I still think we are going to have a difficult time at least until Easter. And I hope that after that we will start to see reduced infection rates, as we did at that time last year.

“And with then the amount of individuals who’ve been vaccinated, which we hope will be a very high level in care homes, old people and in healthcare staff, that will really help us… to drive down infection rates.”

Cases in the Midlands and Northern England appeared to still be on the rise
(Image: Press Association Images)

There is increasing optimism among experts that the latest tough curbs in the third national lockdown are beginning to work.

Chief Scientific Adviser Sir Patrick Vallance told ITV: “I think what we know now, which we didn’t know a few weeks ago, was would these sorts of restrictions be enough to bring this virus under control with the new variant?

“And the answer is yes, it looks like it is, and things are at least flattening off in some places – not everywhere.”

It came as a study by PHE today suggested recovered Covid patients have 83% protection against reinfection for at least five months.

Prof Ferguson raised the question of whether isolation rules could be relaxed for some people who’ve recovered from Covid – for instance in the NHS.

But Prof Hopkins added: "Crucially, we believe people may still be able to pass the virus on.”

Deaths have reached a record daily total

Dr Hopkins told BBC Breakfast that "with only 44 reinfections (in the study), we really don't have enough people to be able to give you an accurate assessment of transmission".

She added: "But what we know from those 44 is that a number of them have very high levels of virus… we also know that a number of those individuals were able to grow the virus.

“And usually when you grow the virus then you're pretty sure that that person is going to be able to transmit live virus to somebody else.

"So that means that there are people who've had infection who can transmit to others. It's not 100% protective."