UK Covid cases are rising for the first time in two months – here’s why

An uptick in Covid hospital admissions in England may herald a new wave of cases caused by omicron sub-variants, according to experts.

According to data published on Friday, hospitalizations have slowly started to climb again, with a 17 per cent jump nationally compared to last week.

Although figures remain relatively low – with 577 people admitted on Thursdaycompared to over 2,000 a day in early January – experts say we should not be “complacent regarding the direction of travel”, and warn any increase is likely to put more pressure on an NHS already under strain.

Meanwhile, the Office for National Statistics said on Friday that Covid infections across the UK have risen for the first time in two months, with almost 990,000 people estimated to have had the virus in the last seven days – up from 953,900 last week.

John Roberts, an actuary tracking Covid, told the Telegram that the uptick in hospitalizations is linked to two omicron sub-variants known as BA.4 and BA.5, which are now “in the ascendancy” having taken over from BA.2 – which caused a wave of infections in April and March.

Both variants emerged in South Africa and have proved able to evade immunity from vaccination or earlier infections. Last month the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control predicted a wave driven by the variants could cause a “significant overall increase” in cases across the continent “in the coming weeks and months”.

Mr Roberts added: “Those watching it more closely than I think that the crossover point where [BA.4 and BA.5 represent] over half the cases was over the Jubilee weekend. It’s too early to say how big the wave will be or how deadly, but any increase will inevitably put even more stress on the NHS, which by all accounts is really struggling at the moment.”

Hospital admissions had grown by 11 per cent compared to last week overall, with south-east England having the highest rates. Analysis on Thursday found that more than a third of new cases are hospitalized primarily for Covid, while 19 percent likely caught the virus while in hospital.

“Consistent with the overall picture, we’re starting to see an upswing after two months of decline,” said Mr Roberts. He added that we “can’t dismiss” those who were not hospitalized due to the coronavirus, as “having Covid may have caused the primary diagnosis (eg a stroke), and it certainly won’t be helping their recovery”.

Harder to track

Although the figures remain well below previous waves, some argue that winding up of free testing and the scaling back of epidemiological models has made the progress of the pandemic tougher to track.

Prof Oliver Johnson, a mathematician at the University of Bristol, told the Telegram he was “honestly not too worried”, but said any new wave was worth keeping an eye on. He added that the variants had already swept through South Africa without causing major problems.

“But still my guess is admissions will go up a bit for a while, so probably just puts a bit more pressure on waiting lists etc,” he said.

The most clinically vulnerable should take care, he said, and people should be aware of the new wave, but he predicted there was little appetite for further action.

“I’m not sure there’s any mood whatsoever from Government or public to do much about this right now,” he said. “And I find it hard to argue they are very wrong.”

Prof Devi Sridhar, a public health expert at Edinburgh University, added that the virus appears to be arriving at around three monthly intervals.

It was still better to avoid getting Covid, she wrote on Twitter, because there was a risk of severe disease, but she said it is right that people have shifted their risk calculations.

“The vectors are often other humans we love, enjoy seeing and being close to, or must see for work reasons. Cost-benefit calculation has shifted for many over time. Avoiding Covid in 2020 by restricting interactions to certain people and settings was understandable given [it was a] new disease [and there was] no vaccine.

“In 2022, most want to interact and live as they see best, given disease severity [has been] blunted with vaccines,” Prof Srihar said.

South Africa is just coming out of a wave of infection driven by the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, which surged through the population even though the great majority of people already had antibodies.

Scientists studying the outbreak said it showed the Covid’s capacity to keep evolving and dodging immunity.

“All of these antibodies that we found did not provide a lot of protection against being infected by the BA.4 and BA.5 sub-variants of Omicron,” Alex Welte, a professor of epidemiology at Stellenbosch University told the New York Times last weekend.

The two new variants are thought to spread more quickly than BA.2, which itself was more contagious than the original omicron. Yet despite the surge in cases during the recent wave, deaths in South Africa were only around a tenth of the peak during previous waves.

Protect yourself and your family by learning more about Global Health Security

.

Leave a Comment