Brits have been urged to wear face masks in crowded and enclosed spaces after warnings the current Covid wave has not yet peaked.
Dame Dr Jenny Harries, one of the UK’s most senior health officials, warned that coronavirus hospital cases are expected to rise further, saying it is “quite likely” that patient admissions will rise higher than the last wave in spring.
In April, the Omicron BA.2 variant saw the number of Covid patients in UK hospitals peak at just over 20,000. At the time, this was the highest number of Covid-related hospital admissions since February last year, when numbers peaked at more than 2,500 per day.
Dr Harries said the majority of cases in the UK now are BA.4 and BA.5 and that the latter is “really pushing and driving this current wave”, and could cause hospital cases to reach an 18-month high.
Has face mask guidance changed?
Official guidance on wearing face masks has not been changed, meaning coverings are still optional in public spaces.
Members of the public are being urged to “go about their normal lives” but in a “precautionary way”.
Dr Harries highlighted handwashing, keeping distance where possible and wearing a face covering in enclosed, poorly ventilated places as precautionary measures as this “can help reduce the chance of spreading infection to others”.
Speaking on the BBC’s Sunday Morning programme, the UK Health Security Agency chief executive said: “It doesn’t look as though that wave has finished yet.
“So we would anticipate that hospital cases will rise and it’s possible, quite likely that they will actually peak over the previous BA.2 wave.
“But I think the overall impact, we won’t know. It’s easy to say in retrospect, it’s not so easy to model forward.”
She added: “I think the advice is still the same. We want people to take sensible precautionary advice.
“So routine things like washing your hands, keeping your distance, wearing a face covering if you’re going into enclosed, poorly ventilated spaces.
“But we’re still encouraging people to go about their normal lives but in that precautionary way.”
Despite not changing the advice, Dr Harries said she has been wearing a mask more often due to the recent surge in infections.
She said: “I haven’t been routinely wearing one but I do routinely carry one in my handbag wherever I go.
“Actually I have worn it in the last week for the very reason that I’m doing exactly what I’ve said, I’m adapting to the changing prevalence of infection.”
“If I was symptomatic and had to go out, I would definitely wear one - clearly I would avoid doing that at all cost. In fact, if I got any respiratory infection it’s a good thing to do and I think it’s a new lesson for the country.”
Covid infections up by more than half a million in a week
The warning for people to take precautions comes after Covid infections in the UK jumped by more than half a million in a week, with the rise driven by the latest Omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5.
Hospital numbers are also increasing, with early signs of a rise in intensive care admissions among older age groups.
A total of 2.3 million people in private households are estimated to have had the virus last week, up 32% from a week earlier, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
This is the highest estimate for total infections since late April, but is still some way below the record high of 4.9 million seen at the peak of the Omicron BA.2 wave at the end of March.
Asked if it matters that a lot of people are getting infected with Covid, Dr Harries said that aside from the effect on individuals, it also “matters on a national basis”.
“Whilst we have an armament now of vaccines and antiviral treatments, we do have, as you’ve just highlighted, a rise in hospital admissions and occupancy,” she said.
“And that means it’s not just Covid that we’re concerned about, but it’s actually our ability to treat other illnesses as well.”
She appealed to the “nearly 20% of the 75-plus year-old group” who have not had their spring booster to come forward.