While the overall number of coronavirus infections is falling across the UK, there are early signs of another increase in cases in the East Midlands, official figures have suggested.
In a report published by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) it was suggested that around one in every 340 people in England was infected with COVID-19 in the week ending 13 March, the latest dates for which data is available.
The number of infected people per hundred is slightly higher in Scotland and Northern Ireland – one in 275 and one in 315 respectively – and considerably less in Wales, where one in every 430 people is suspected to have had the virus last week.
The UK's R Rate - the rate at which infections are spreading - has risen slightly from between 0.6 and 0.8 to between 0.6 and 0.9, but crucially remains below 1, meaning that on average every 10 people infected will infect between six and nine other people, and infections are not growing exponentially.
The ONS report said: "During the week ending 13 March 2021, the highest percentages of people testing positive are observed in the East Midlands, Yorkshire and The Humber and the North East."
However, it warned that: "In the data used to produce these estimates, the number of people sampled in each region who tested positive for the coronavirus was low relative to England overall. This means there is a higher degree of uncertainty in the regional estimates for this period, as indicated by larger credible intervals."
More detailed analysis of results by region showed that the percentage of people testing positive has decreased in the West Midlands, East of England, South West and London, but the trend is uncertain for the remaining regions, and "there may be early signs of an increase for the East Midlands".
The figures were published as Boris Johnson assured the country that his 'roadmap' of lifting lockdown restrictions was still on track.
Speaking at a Downing Street press conference on Thursday, the prime minister insisted: “Our progress along the road to freedom continues unchecked – we remain on track to reclaim the things we love, to see our families and friends again, to return to our local pubs, our gyms and sports facilities and of course our shops.”
Professor James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute at University of Oxford, said that Friday's numbers brought "reassurance" but urged people to continue to follow social distancing guidelines and said that the UK's vaccine rollout offered "the only realistic hope" of an end to the pandemic.
“Today’s ONS numbers bring reassurance that for the UK as a whole the prevalence of the virus has continued to decline," he said. "A similar story is told by the national R numbers. The lockdown continues to be effective at reducing infection.
“Broken down, the ONS numbers by different parts of the UK tell slightly different stories. Of note is that prevalence in Scotland may have increased but has certainly not decreased. Within England, East Midlands may also have shown a small uptick. The so-called Kent variant is now dominant in UK.
Prof Naismith said that lockdowns had "saved thousands of lives" but added: "The strictness of social distancing measures required to limit the spread of the more infectious variants are very hard to sustain, this may underlie the uptick in some regions of the UK and rises in the EU.
“Uncontrolled the new variants will overwhelm health care systems.
“Vaccination offers the only realistic hope to end the pandemic, the UK’s advanced vaccination program will save tens of thousands of lives."
Watch: Daily Politics Briefing 19 March
As the UK's vaccination programme continues to be rolled out, ministers have denied that a delay in vaccine deliveries from India will affect promises to have offered all adults their first jab by July.
On Wednesday the NHS was told “there will be a significant reduction” in vaccine supply from the end of March.
However, health secretary Matt Hancock admitted vaccine supply was "lumpy" but insisted the government was on course to give the first jab to the top nine priority groups by mid-April and all adults by the end of July.
And the PM echoed his resolve on Thursday. He said that the UK's current supply "will still enable us to hit the targets we have set".
“So there is no change to the next steps of the road map," he added.
Watch: COVID vaccine rollout continues across UK