The number of people testing positive for coronavirus has soared by 32% across the UK following a 15-fold increase in reinfections. Covid-19’s summer wave could break soon, but there are concerns it could come crashing back this winter. Here, we answer the key questions about the increase in cases…
Q So, what is actually driving the surge?
HAS Two highly infectious sub-variants of Omicron have been blamed for the latest spike. There are also signs that additional new variants are switching back to more dangerous forms of the virus that penetrate deeper into the lungs.
Q Do these variants spread faster?
HAS Yes. The high reinfection rate is testament to just how quickly the BA.4 and BA.5 strains of Omicron can jump from person to person. It also shows how effective they are at evading the body’s defences.
BA.4 is growing 19% faster than the previous dominant strain, with BA.5 even higher at a growth rate of 35%.
Q How many people are infected?
HAS The latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) report estimates that 71,000 people here (almost 4% of the population) contracted the virus in the week up until June 24. Across the UK, cases surged by more than 500,000 in the same seven-day period, with a rise recorded across all age groups.
Experts are monitoring the data and will continue to pay close attention over the coming weeks.
Q Are hospital admissions on the rise?
HAS Yes. A total of 323 patients with Covid-19 were in hospital as of June 23, according to the latest data from the Department of Health. A total of 164 of this number had been admitted within the preceding seven days, up four on the previous week. Health Minister Robin Swann has warned that the NHS remains under severe pressure.
Q Are people still dying after contracting Covid-19?
HAS Yes. However, the mortality rate remains low relative to rising case numbers. Six people died in Northern Ireland in the week ending June 24, according to official figures, bringing the total number of deaths to 4,658.
Q Do the Covid-19 vaccines still work?
HAS Yes. But each new mutation increases the likelihood of reinfection. A total of five mutations now threaten to thwart efforts to stamp out the virus. Those with immunity should experience milder symptoms, but scientists fear that new sub-variants could be evolving to target lung cells. That would make them similar to the more severe and more dangerous Alpha and Delta variants.
Q Is there any point in getting a booster shot?
HAS Yes. Booster jabs can reboot the body’s Covid defences, which are said to wane after three months after vaccination. The Joint Committee on Vaccines and Immunization (JCVI) has provided interim advice to the government prioritizing elderly and vulnerable adults and frontline health workers this winter.
Q What are the symptoms of Covid19?
HAS The list of Covid symptoms has been expanded from the original three — a new and continuous cough, a high temperature and a change to or loss of smell and taste.
It now includes nine other symptoms which are common signs of other respiratory infections. Among them are shortness of breath, tiredness, muscle aches, headache, blocked or runny nose, sore throat, loss of appetite, diarrhea and nausea.
Q How do I get tested for the virus?
HAS The Department of Health has extended the availability of free lateral flow tests until the end of July. Tests can also be purchased online.
Q Do I still need to isolate if I test positive?
HAS Yes. But the amount of time you are required to isolate has been shortened to five days from the date of your test or the first day of symptoms. Children now only have to avoid contact with others for three days because they are less infectious.
Q Will I be notified if I am at risk of having the virus?
HAS Not officially. Northern Ireland’s Test, Trace, Protect scheme has been stood down. The decision was taken because the overall risk of serious illness was considered to be much lower than during previous waves.
But people who test positive for Covid-19 are still encouraged to let anyone they have been in contact with know about their diagnosis.
Q Will the rise in cases affect work and businesses?
HAS It’s likely, especially in sectors still struggling to bounce back. The surge could also exacerbate the staff shortages that have been causing mayhem at airports. However, the rise in numbers has not yet affected Stormont’s lifting of official work-from-home guidance, with workers still encouraged to go into the office.
Q Can I minimize my chances of testing positive?
HAS Yes. The summer months should (at least in theory) make meeting outdoors easier, which vastly reduces the risk of airborne transmission of Covid-19. If you’re indoors, you should let fresh air in to reduce the risk.
Face masks are no longer a legal requirement, but health experts still recommend using them to reduce droplets from coughs, sneezes and speaking.
Q Are infections high in the Republic too?
HAS Yes. The latest figures show that almost 800 people with the virus are in hospital across the border. Of this number, 33 were in intensive care, indicating an upward trend. Last week, case numbers in nursing homes more than doubled.
Q What are experts saying in the Republic?
HAS GPs who have reported a recent increase in cases warn that community spread is happening in the early stages of infection. They claim too many people are spreading the disease while asymptomatic and still getting negative antigen test results. This shows the importance of isolating from the moment symptoms appear.
Q What is the situation across the UK?
HAS An estimated 2.3 million people have the virus, which is up almost a third within a week. The ONS estimates that Covid rates are as follows: one in 30 in England, up from one in 40 the week before; one in 30 in Wales, up from one in 45; one in 25 in Northern Ireland, up from one in 30; and one in 18 in Scotland, up from one in 20.
Q Will the rise in cases result in new measures?
HAS No, at least not at the moment. But Robin Swann has promised to keep restrictions under review. He insists the overall risk remains low.