Levels of Covid-19 continue to rise in all four of the UK’s countries, with the rise fueled by Omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5, experts say.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), based on swabs collected from randomly selected households, reveal that in the week ending June 18, an estimated one in 40 people in the community in England would have had Covid – approximately 1.36 million people – an increase from one in 50, or 1.13 million people, the week before.
The estimated number of people testing positive for Covid has also risen in the past week in Scotland and Northern Ireland and, to a lesser extent in Wales, with the highest level in Scotland, where about one in 20 people, or 4.76% of the population, thought to have had Covid in the week ending June 17.
“Rates have continued to rise in the UK, with the largest increase in Scotland,” said Kara Steel, senior statistician for the Covid-19 Infection Survey.
“In England, infections increased in all age groups, with the lowest infection rate in school-aged children. These increases are largely driven by the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 variants.”
According to the latest ONS data, infection levels have risen in all regions of England, except the North East and South East, where the trend has been uncertain, and in all age groups.
Levels are currently highest in London, and among those aged 25 to 34 – with around 3.3% of the latter estimated to have had Covid in the past week.
In total, an estimated 1.7 million people in private households in the UK had the virus last week – the highest figure since late April.
Experts have previously said that the rising number of infections is likely due to a number of factors, including waning immunity, a return to prepandemic behavior and, in particular, the growth of the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, which are affected by the disease. UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) regarded as “variants of concern”.
Research released earlier this month revealed that an Omicron infection offers little additional protection against recurrence, while the UKHSA on Friday said BA.5 grew 35.1% faster than the previously dominant Omicron subvariant BA.2, while BA.4 grows approximately 19.1% faster.
“These new variants are catching up with the plateauing or declining older in the UK, and similar patterns of rising infections are seen across Europe,” Prof Adam Kucharski of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told the Guardian. “This will be the third wave of a clear Omicron variant in recent months, after BA.1 and BA.2, and countries are likely to see more in the future, so we can’t see Covid as ‘one more wave’ and then it’s ‘all done’.”
Hospital admissions are also on the rise, with data from the UKHSA released Thursday showing the hospitalization rate for Covid in England has risen from 6.11 per 100,000 to 8.20 per 100,000, with the highest rates in the North East and in people from 85 years and older.
Experts have called for a renewed campaign to encourage people to sign up for their Covid vaccinations, especially the elderly and vulnerable.
On Friday, the UKHSA revealed that the BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants of Omicron now account for more than half of Covid cases in the UK.
“Clearly, the increasing prevalence of Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 is significantly increasing the number of cases we have observed in recent weeks. We have seen an increase in hospital admissions in line with community infections, but vaccinations continue to keep ICU admissions and deaths at a low level,” said Prof Susan Hopkins, the UKHSA’s chief medical officer.
“As prevalence increases, it is more important than ever that we all stay vigilant, take precautions and ensure we are up to date with Covid-19 vaccinations, which remain our best form of defense against the virus. It’s not too late to catch up if you’ve missed boosters or even first doses, so please take your recommended vaccines.”