England’s Covid resurgence may already be fizzling out, according to leading scientists who are hopeful that the uptick won’t descend into chaos.
Data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests 1.3million people in England were infected during the week to June 18, up by a fifth compared to the previous estimate. Yet the week-on-week rise is half of the 40 per cent spike logged in last week’s projection.
Cases are also on the rise in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Experts told MailOnline the figures suggest the current wave ‘may be slowing’ already and ‘may not go that high after all’. They admitted, however, that the peak is still to come.
The Omicron sub-strains BA.4 and BA.5 are now the dominant strains in the UK, the UK Health Security Agency today confirmed for the first time. They are thought to be even more infectious than their ancestral versions, which were to blame for cases reaching pandemic highs in December and April, but just as mild.
Celebrations for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, half-term holidays and warm weather are also thought to be fuelling the latest surge. Some have also pointed to Britons mistaking Covid symptoms for hay fever. But infectious disease specialists have confidence the upcoming wave will be no worse than other peaks seen this year.
And they do not expect any sharp increase in hospitalisations, despite admissions having already breached 1,000 for the first time in two months. Only a third of patients are primarily admitted because they are unwell due to the virus, NHS data shows.
Speaking before the latest ONS stats were released, Sir Jonathan Van-Tam, England’s former deputy chief medical officer, said there is ‘nothing alarmist’ in the rise. The newly-knighted epidemiologist also revealed he is no longer wearing a face mask.
Left-leaning scientists have already called for a return of mask-wearing and for Brits to only meet outside because of the uptick in infections.
The prevalence of the Omicron subvariants has nearly doubled every week, according to data from the Sanger Institute — one of the UK’s largest Covid surveillance centres. The strains’ combined 57.4 per cent share of infections in the week to June 11 is up from 41.7 per cent in the week to June 4, 21.2 per cent in the week to May 28 and 11 per cent in the week to May 21. Dominant strain BA.2, which was behind nearly all cases when infections hit a record high in March, now accounts for just 41.7 per cent of cases
While Covid admissions have risen in the past week they are still well behind figures from just a few months ago
The recently knighted Sir Jonathan said Britons need to make their own mind up about if a situation warranted wearing a mask (pictured wearing a mask in November last year)
Covid vaccines ‘saved nearly 20MILLION lives during first year of world’s roll-out’
Covid vaccines saved almost 20million lives during the first year of their existence, according to estimates.
British grandmother Maggie Keenan became the first person in the world to get an approved jab on December 8, 2020.
Now a team of researchers have calculated the benefits of the jabs, estimating they saved 19.8million lives across 185 countries within the first 12 months of being used.
Led by academics at Imperial College London, the team claimed more deaths were prevented in wealthy countries (12.2 million).
They found a further 7.5million lives were saved in countries covered by the Covid-19 Vaccine Access initiative (Covax), designed to provide jabs to poorer nations.
Yet the academics also found a further 600,000 deaths could have been prevented had the World Health Organization’s (WHO) target of vaccinating 40 per cent of the population in every country by the end of 2021 been met.
The majority of the preventable deaths, as they were branded, were in Africa.
It came as the UKHSA confirmed that BA.4 and BA.5 were now dominant across the UK, accounting for approximately 22 per cent and 39 per cent of cases, respectively.
Latest analysis suggests BA.5 is growing 35 per cent faster than the formerly dominant Omicron BA.2, while BA.4 is growing approximately 19 per cent faster. This suggests that BA.5 is likely to become the dominant variant in the UK.
There is currently no evidence that BA.4 and BA.5 cause more severe illness than previous variants.
Professor Susan Hopkins, chief medical advisor at UKHSA 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. It’s not too late to catch up if you’ve missed boosters, or even first doses so please take your recommended vaccines.
‘Our data also show that 17.5 per cent of people aged 75 years and over have not had a vaccine within the past six months, putting them more at risk of severe disease. We urge these people in particular to get up-to-date.
‘If you have any symptoms of a respiratory infection, and a high temperature or feel unwell, try to stay at home or away from others – especially those who are elderly or vulnerable. Face coverings in crowded indoor spaces and hand washing will help to reduce transmission of infection and are especially important if you have any respiratory symptoms.’
Meanwhile, the ONS report, considered the best barometre of the outbreak since free-testing was axed, show roughly one in 40 people in England had Covid last week, equating to 2.5 per cent of the population.
Infections were highest in Scotland, where one in 20 people (250,700) were infected, followed by Northern Ireland, where one in 40 (59,900) were carrying the virus.
One in 45 people in Wales (68,500) were thought to be infected.
The figures, based on swabs taken from a sample of thousands of Britons, show that cases were on the rise across England — apart from the North East and South East, where the trend was uncertain.
Infections were highest in London, where 2.9 per cent of people were infected, followed by the North West (2.6 per cent), the South West (2.5 per cent) and Yorkshire and the Humber (2.4 per cent).
Meanwhile, the number of people testing positive shot up across all age groups.
Those aged 25 to 34 were the most likely to be infected (3.3 per cent), followed by 50 to 69-year-olds (3.1 per cent) and 16 to 24-year-olds (2.9 per cent).
Infections were slightly lower among 35 to 49-year-olds (2.7 per cent), the over-70s (2.3 per cent), 11 to 15-year-olds (1.5 per cent) and two to 10-year-olds (0.9 per cent).
Kara Steel, senior statistician for the Covid infection survey, said: ‘Rates have continued to rise across the UK, with the largest increase seen in Scotland.
‘In England, infections increased across all age groups, with the lowest level of infection seen in school aged children.
‘These increases are largely driven by the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 variants. We will continue to closely monitor the data.’
Sequencing data from the ONS show Omicron strain BA.2 — which was behind the record high 4.1million peak in April — is still dominant.
It was behind 73.5 per cent of cases between May 16 and June 12, while BA.4 caused 9.8 per cent of cases and BA.5 triggered 15.2 per cent of infections.
Separate data from the Sanger Institute, one of the UK’s largest Covid surveillance centres, shows the prevalence of BA.4 and BA.5 have nearly doubled every week.
Its analysis shows the strains’ combined 57.4 per cent share of infections in the week to June 11.
The UKHSA today said data showed BA.5 was up to 35 per cent more transmissible than BA.2. The other sub-strain, BA.4, is thought to have a 20 per cent growth advantage.
Professor Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at the UKHSA, 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 vaccinations, which remain our best form of defence 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.’
Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious disease expert at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline the ONS figures suggest the current wave ‘may be slowing’ but warned ‘we have to be cautious’.
He said: ‘The previous week’s data followed the half term holiday and there was certainly a boost to the growth of the epidemic then.’
The uptick last week was more likely due people travelling overseas for holidays rather than Jubilee weekend celebrations, Professor Hunter said.
He added: ‘If you look at the variant BA.2 which was decreasing before the end of May, infections increased again that week but are now falling again.
‘But given that BA.2 is now no longer dominant, I would have expected to see more infections this week than we have seen if BA.4 and BA.5 were indeed increasing as rapidly as during May.
‘So maybe the current wave may not go that high after all, though it is likely we have not yet reached the peak.’
It comes as Sir Jonathan, 57, dismissed hysteria that the uptick in cases marks a new wave of the pandemic, saying Britain has to learn to live the virus.
Speaking about the ONS figures for last week, which showed a 40 per cent jump in cases, the newly-knighted scientist said there was ‘nothing alarmist’ about the rise.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘It is an uptick but it is really very small still in relation to the kind of peaks that we saw in January and April.
‘The hospitalisation signal most importantly is very small indeed. At the moment there is nothing alarmist in these figures.’
The ONS figures show one in 40 people in England had Covid last week, equating to two per cent. Infections were highest in Scotland, where one in 20 people (250,700) were infected, followed by Northern Ireland, where one in 40 (59,900) were carrying the virus. One in 45 people in Wales (68,500) were infected, where cases were lowest
Members of Independent SAGE, a pressure group that previously called for a zero-Covid policy, last week called for a return to wearing masks indoors and meeting outdoors in response to rising Covid rates.
But Sir Jonathan said hospitalisation, intensive care admissions and deaths are the true metric of whether Covid warrants further concern.
NHS England figures show daily Covid hospital admissions in England surpassed 1,000 for the first time in two months this week.
Some 1,155 people were admitted on June 21, up by 50 per cent compared to the 763 hospitalisations logged one week earlier. However, the figure is half of the 2,355 peak logged in March.
And there are 6,401 Covid patients in hospital beds across England. The figure is up 27.8 per cent in a week but a fraction of the 16,442 peak three months ago.
And NHS figures show that just 37.7 per cent of these patients were primarily admitted because they were unwell with the virus. Due to the high prevalence of Covid in the community, the others were hospitalised due to other illnesses but happened to test positive.
Sky-high immunity rates from Britain’s historic vaccination campaign and repeated waves have drastically blunted the threat of the virus over time, meaning it is now more comparable to flu.
Sir Jonathan said: ‘The data still show that although when cases go up hospitalisations go up the proportion of people requiring hospitalisation is way, way, way lower than when Covid first appeared on the scene.
‘That is because of vaccination and to a smaller extent acquired immunity as we’ve caught Covid in the interim.’
Sir Jonathan, who is now pro-vice-chancellor for medicine and health sciences at the University of Nottingham, added that the country had to learn to live with the virus similar to the other winter bugs it now resembled.
He said: ‘We just accept that in the winter that if you’ve got seasonal flu and you’re poorly for a few days it disrupts your life.
‘We’ve got to start frame Covid a little more in those terms to be truthful.’
The ONS figures, which are based on swabs taken from a representative sample of thousands of Britons, show that cases were on the rise across England – apart from the North East and South East, where the trend was uncertain. Infections were highest in London, where 2.9 per cent of people were infected, followed by the North West (2.6 per cent), the South West (2.5 per cent) and Yorkshire and the Humber (2.4 per cent). Cases were below the national average in the North East Midlands (2.4 per cent), South East (2.4 per cent), East of England (2.3 per cent), West Midlands (2.3 per cent) and the North East (2.2 per cent)
The number of people testing positive shot up across all age groups, according to the ONS figures. Those aged 25 to 34 were the most likely to be infected (3.3 per cent), followed by 50 to 69-year-olds (3.1 per cent) and 16 to 24-year-olds (2.9 per cent). Infections were slightly lower among 35 to 49-year-olds (2.7 per cent), the over-70s (2.3 per cent), 11 to 15-year-olds (1.5 per cent) and two to 10-year-olds (0.9 per cent)
Sir Jonathan announced his departure from public office in January this year during the height of Boris Johnson’s ‘partygate’ scandal, returning to academic work at the University of Nottingham in May
He was knighted for his service to the nation during the pandemic but ironically had to miss the ceremony last month after testing positive for the virus.
A straight-talking voice of calm, JVT shot to fame in the early stages of the pandemic for his use of football-related metaphors to explain complex science. He has fronted many Downing Street press conferences, attracting a legion of fans who have bought T-shirts with his face and phrases emblazoned across the front.
The recent spike in Covid cases prompted the NHS to urge eligible Britons to come forward for their Spring booster.
Health chiefs have asked one million eligible older Britons to get their fourth dose this month, so they have the necessary time between jabs ahead of an autumn booster.
Interim guidance released by the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) last month recommended that autumn booster doses should be given to care-home residents, the over-65s, frontline health and social workers and vulnerable young people.
But Health Secretary Sajid Javid has told his team to ‘be ready for it to be over-50s’.
He told the Financial Times: ‘That doesn’t mean to say it’s going to be over-50s… but I always want to be prepared – just in case the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation broadens the cohort.’
Some public health experts called for all adults to be given another jab, however Mr Javid said this was ‘highly unlikely’.
University of Edinburgh public health professor Devi Sridhar said the vaccine should be extended to reduce the economic, educational and social cost of the disease in young people.
She said autumn infections were more concerning than the current wave.
How JVT’s colourful analogies helped the public understand the pandemic and made him a household name
JVT, a fan of Boston United, likened the vaccination programme to defensive football players whose job it was to ‘watch everybody’s back’.
At a Downing Street press conference he said: ‘A bit like a football game where the strikers who score the wonder goals are the ones who make the headlines, actually, the hard yards are done by the defenders and by the defensive midfielders tracking back, tracking back for 90 minutes of the whole game, watching everybody’s back.
‘This is what it’s going to be about now, tracking back and making sure that we finish the job properly in the phase one cohorts before we move on.’
He compared the pandemic to the Aintree horse race when he warned Britain could not fall at the final fence.
‘The vaccine effects are going to take three months until we see them properly, and until then no-one can relax,’ he told The Sun.
‘We are probably in the last few furlongs of this race – like in the Grand National. We just have a couple more fences, we have just got to stick with it.’
Football is a common tool used by JVT to explain Britain’s progress through the coronavirus pandemic.
He once described the development of the Pfizer vaccine to reaching the penalties at the end of the play-off final.
‘So this is like… getting to the end of the play-off final, it’s gone to penalties, the first player goes up and scores a goal.
‘You haven’t won the cup yet, but what it does is, it tells you that the goalkeeper can be beaten.’
Landing a plane
The progress of the vaccine rollout has been compared to different forms of transport, including a plane coming in to land.
JVT said: ‘Do I believe that we are now on the glide path to landing this plane? Yes I do.
‘Do I accept that sometimes when you are on the glide path, you can have a side wind and the landing is not totally straightforward, totally textbook? Of course.’
JVT said the pandemic was like waiting on a platform for a train, with the lights ‘a long way off’.
He said: ‘This to me is like a train journey, it’s wet, it’s windy, it’s horrible.
‘Two miles down the tracks, two lights appear and it’s the train and it’s a long way off and we’re at that point at the moment. That’s the efficacy result.
‘Then we hope the train slows down safely to get into the station, that’s the safety data, and then the train stops.
‘And at that point, the doors don’t open, the guard has to make sure it’s safe to open the doors. That’s the MHRA, that’s the regulator.’
He said the train was the vaccine, and he hoped when it was ready there would not be ‘an unholy scramble for the seats’.
‘The JCVI has very clearly said which people need the seats most and they are the ones who should get on the train first.’
JVT said Britons needed to avoid getting a ‘red card’ from the Omicron coronavirus variant by getting a booster jab.
He said: ‘Omicron is like now picking up a couple of yellow cards to key players on top. We may be OK but we’re kind of starting to feel at risk that we might go down to 10 players and if that happens – or it’s a risk that’s going to happen – then we need everyone on the pitch to up their game in the meantime.
‘We’re not going to wait for the red card to happen, we are going to act decisively now and we’re asking everyone to up their game, we’re asking everyone to play their part in the urgency now of the booster programme, coming forward the moment you are called by the NHS.’
When explaining the extreme temperature the coronavirus vaccine must be stored at, JVT said it was not like a yogurt.
He added: ‘This is a complex product. It’s not a yoghurt that can be taken out of the fridge and put back in multiple times.’
And other famous moments…
When he ripped off his shirt
The professor proceeded to rip off his shirt and tie, disappearing into a cloud of smoke
Professor Van-Tam was hosting the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures on BBC Four when he ripped off his shirt and tie, disappeared into a cloud of smoke – and reemerged in slightly less formal attire, wearing a more casual blue shirt underneath his jacket.
The stunt sparked a typical reaction on social media, with one account comparing JVT – as he’s widely become known – to Steve Coogan’s comedy cringe character, Alan Partridge.
When he dealt calmly with an anti-vaxxer
JVT stayed completely calm and responded politely to an anti-vaxxer who screamed abuse at him in Westminster last June.
Geza Tarjanyi, 60, of Leyland, Lancashire, targeted the Deputy Chief Medical Officer as he walked into the Ministry of Defence building.
He said: ‘Are you Van-Tam, aren’t ya? What was really in that needle that you put into Matt Hancock? Why are you continually lying to the British people? Why are you smiling? This country’s supposed to be in the worst pandemic of all time.’
Professor Van-Tam politely replied: ‘It is.’ And when, following another torrent of abuse, the anti-vaxxer asked JVT if he was listening, the expert said: ‘What? I’m finding it difficult.’