The UK is facing another wave of Covid infections as all four nations are continuing to see an increase in cases, figures show.
Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) indicate that 1.7 million people in the UK had the virus in the week to 17 June, while the number of people in hospital with Covid is also on an upward trend, with experts warning the UK has entered its fifth coronavirus wave.
Why are Covid infections rising?
The recent rise in Covid cases is thought to have been fuelled by an increase in infections from the BA.4 and BA.4 Omicron variants.
Together, BA.4 and BA.5 now make up more than half of new Covid cases in England.
Health experts said that while there is “currently no evidence” that BA.4 and BA.5 lead to more serious symptoms than previous variants, nearly one in six people aged 75 and over have not received a booster dose of vaccine in the past six months, putting them more at risk of severe disease.
A total of 1.7 million people in private households are estimated to have had the virus in the week to 17 June, up 23% from 1.4 million a week earlier, according to the ONS.
The rise of 23% is lower than the 43% jump in the previous week’s figures, but it means total infections are now at levels last seen at the end of April and are also higher than the peak reached during the second wave of the virus in January 2021.
However, infections are still below the record 4.9 million seen at the peak of the Omicron BA.2 wave at the end of March this year.
The ONS said the latest increase was “likely caused by infections compatible with Omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5”, which are now thought to be the most dominant strains in much of the UK.
The BA.4 and BA.5 variants are new strains of Omicron that were recently classified by the UK Health Security Agency as “variants of concern”.
Analysis found both variants were likely to have a “growth advantage” over BA.2 and have a degree of “immune escape”, meaning the immune system can no longer recognise or fight a virus, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
Professor Susan Hopkins, UKHSA chief medical adviser, said: “It is clear that the increasing prevalence of Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 are significantly increasing the case numbers we have observed in recent weeks.
“We have seen a rise in hospital admissions in line with community infections but vaccinations are continuing to keep ICU admissions and deaths at low levels.
“As prevalence increases, it’s more important than ever that we all remain alert, take precautions, and ensure that we’re up to date with Covid-19 vaccinations, which remain our best form of defence against the virus.”
Where are infections increasing?
Covid infections are continuing to rise in all four nations of the UK, but the virus is currently most prevalent in Scotland, where 250,700 people esitmated to have tested positive in the week to 17 June, or one in 20.
In England, 797,500 people were estimated to have tested positive for Covid last week – the equivalent of about one in 70. This is up week on week from 784,100, which was also about one in 70. This is up week on week from 176,900, or one in 30, and is the highest estimate for Scotland since mid-April.
In England, 1.4 million people were estimated to have had the virus in the same period, the equivalent of around one in 40. This is up from 1.1 million, or one in 50 people, from the previous week.
Wales has seen infections rise slightly to 68,500 people, or one in 45, up from 64,800, also one in 45.
In Northern Ireland, infections jumped to an estimated 59,900 people, or one in 30, up from 42,900, or one in 45.
The percentage of people testing positive is thought to have increased among all age groups in England and all regions except the North East and South East, where the trend is described by the ONS as “uncertain”.
Infection levels are highest among 25 to 34-year-olds, where 3.3% – one in 30 – were estimated to to have had the virus.
Dr Stephen Griffin of the school of medicine at the University of Leeds, said: “The Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 are fuelling another wave of infections, our third already this year.
“The rate of reinfection with these variants is also dramatically increased and prevalence is increasing across all ages.
“This highlights the ability of these viruses to evade antibody immunity and the rapidity with which they are causing waves across the globe is concerning.
“Our population immunity and the properties of the virus are continuously changing.
“Comparisons to the pre-vaccine era are of course reassuring, but the idea that this race has been run to the best of our ability is nonsense.
“A pandemic is just that, there are no exceptions until it ends for all.”
What symptoms should I look for?
The NHS extended its list of Covid symptoms earlier this year to reflect the wider array of signs that could indicate possible infection.
People are now urged to look for the following:
- a high temperature or shivering (chills) – a high temperature means you feel hot to touch on your chest or back (you do not need to measure your temperature)
- a new, continuous cough – this means coughing a lot for more than an hour, or 3 or more coughing episodes in 24 hours
- a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste
- shortness of breath
- feeling tired or exhausted
- an aching body
- a headache
- a sore throat
- a blocked or runny nose
- loss of appetite
- feeling sick or being sick
The legal requirement to self-isolate after a positive Covid test ended across the UK earlier this year, with the governments instead asking people to take “personal responsibility”.
It is advised that you stay at home and avoid contact with other people if you have any of these symptoms and either a high temperature, or you do not feel well enough to go to work to do your normal activities.