It shouldn’t come as any surprise that since the abolition of all restrictions and the return of mass social gatherings such as Platinum Jubilee celebrations and festivals, COVID-19 infections are increasing again across the UK. According to the latest figures from the Office of National Statistics, an estimated 1.4 million people, or one in 45, has the virus, an increase of 43 percent from the previous week when it measured one in 65.
Experts say two new fast-spreading subvariants of Omicron are to blame. Called BA.4 and BA.5, they are more infectious than previous variations, and can cause illness even in people who have previously had Covid.
As the figures cover part of the period of he Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations, it seems clear that this was part of the cause of the spread. But with major events like the Glastonbury Festival now underway, it seem certain that the following weeks will see a further rise in infections.
The ONS survey collates data from testing thousands of people around the UK, whether they show symptoms or not, so it is a good indicator of the general level of infection in the countries.
For the week ending 11 June, the Covid rates were:
- One in 50 in England – up from one in 70 the week before
- One in 45 in Wales – up from one in 75
- One in 45 in Northern Ireland – up from one in 65
- One in 30 in Scotland – up from one in 40
Though they seem to be more infectious than previous strains, BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron, first identififed in South Africa at the start of the year, are not thought to be any more dangerous than other types of Covid, and existing vaccines are still adequate protection against them. The problem is that vaccination effectiveness wears off in time, and many people haven’t had a vaccination for six months. The relaxation of regulations on social gathering, mask wearing and international travel is also giving the virus more chances to spread.
Dr Mary Ramsay, from the UK Health Security Agency, said: “It is encouraging that we are not seeing an increase in intensive care unit admissions, but we are monitoring data closely and assessing the possible impact of subvariants BA.4 and BA.5.
“As we enter summer, it’s still important to remember that Covid-19 has not gone away, and to get vaccinated to reduce the risk of becoming seriously ill with the virus.”
Speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, Professor Sir Jonathan Van-Tam, former deputy chief medical officer for England, said: “It is an uptick, but it is very small still in relation to the kind of peaks we saw in January and April, and the hospitalisation signal, most importantly, is very small indeed, so at the moment there is nothing alarmist in these figures.”
Asked whether it would now be worth considering a new round of vaccinations, Professor Van-Tam suggested that as the proportion of people requiring hospitalisation or intensive care is now down, this will probably be the government’s main consideration . “From that perspective they will have to say that is part of how we are beginning to adjust to living with this virus in the longer term… The picture is now much closer to seaaonal ‘flue than to how it was when it emerged – we accept that in the winter if you have seasonal flu and you are poorly for a few days, it disrupts your life, and we have to start to frame Covid in those terms to be truthful.”
Professor Van-Tam went on to say that he might continue to use protection such as masks “in a really closed environment with very high crowding and very intense social interactions… and I think people have got to learn to frame those risks for themselves.”