But Mr Hancock warned that “this isn’t over yet”, pointing to figures which showed that the recent fall in case numbers is now slowing, and has flattened completely in some areas of the country.

One in five local authority areas in the country has seen a rise in numbers of cases over the past week, he told a 10 Downing Street press conference.

And deputy chief medical officer Jonathan Van Tam warned that Britons cannot afford to let their guard down and “take your foot off the brake” by relaxing their observation of social distancing rules by meeting relatives and friends.

“We are not yet collectively as a country in the right place,” warned Prof Van Tam. “All the rules still apply until we are in a much safer place.

“It’s a bit like being 3-0 up in a game and saying ‘We can’t lose this’. But how many times have you seen the other side come back and win 4-3?

“Do not wreck this now. We are so close.”

Mr Hancock said: “The data show that we are heading in the right direction.

“The number of cases is now down to one in every 145 people and the rate of decline is continuing. But actually the pace of it is slowing.

“The rate of hospital admissions shows a fall of 40% over the past fortnight. But there are still 15,485 people in hospital, and that’s far too high.

“The number of deaths has more than halved in the last fortnight. But 380 deaths were reported each day on average over the last week, and that is far too high.

“The good news is that the link from cases to hospitalisations and deaths, which has had a grim inevitability throughout 2020, that link is now breaking thanks to the vaccination programme. 

“The pressure on the NHS means that the UK chief medical officers have agreed that the UK alert level has been moved down from level five to level four, which is, of course, great news. But level four still means that there is significant pressure on the NHS.

“The number of cases is now falling by only 15% a week. In some areas of the country that has flattened entirely, and one in five local authority areas has seen a rise in cases in the last week.”

And he added: “This stark picture shows that this isn’t over yet.

“The stay-at-home rules are still in place for a reason. Every action that you take, every time you put your mask on, every time you stay at home, you’re playing your part. This is on all of us to keep this under control.

“This is still a deadly virus. We will get through this. But we have to stick at it. We must remain vigilant.”

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