covid cases are likely to pass 350,000 a day for the first time in the UK next week, a leading forecaster has predicted.
And they could shoot up to around 650,000 cases a day in the autumn, when up to one in 10 people would be infected at any one time, he warned.
Daily symptomatic infections in the UK have exceeded 300,000 a day to stand at 325,337 – almost three times as high as they were at the start of June and close to their all-time high of 349,011, recorded on 31 March, according to the ZOE Covid study app.
Professor Tim Spector, the King’s College London professor who runs the app, predicts cases will reach between 350,000 and 360,000 cases in around a week – after which they may plateau and begin to decline, as the school holidays and warmer weather reduce the time people spend indoors together.
But he expects another, far worse, Covid wave in the autumn, when schools go back and the cooler weather forces more people back indoors.
This could push daily symptomatic infection levels to around twice their current level – taking them to about 650,000 cases a day, he said.
“I see it going to 350,000 or 360,000 in about 5 or six days, at the current rate. There’s no sign of it slowing really anywhere yet but also it’s not going crazy,” Prof Spector says – adding that cases are already at record levels in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but not yet in England or the UK as a whole.
“And in the autumn it has the potential to go way past our previous wave – with daily symptomatic infections roughly doubling from now and up to one in 10 people infected at any one time. It could be very bad,” he said.
The expected magnitude of the existing and autumn spikes has increased in recent weeks as cases in the current wave have risen far more than had been expected.
This because the new Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 are far better at evading immunity from vaccination and previous infection than BA.2, their predecessor.
While a prior infection does provide good short-term protection against reinfection by these subvariants, this only lasts for a matter of weeks – a much shorter period than had been expected and which had been the case for previous variants.
As a result, they have spread rapidly through the population, ousting BA.2 as the dominant subvariant.
“We’ve been underestimating the size of these potential peaks. None of us anticipated this wave would be nearly as big and what we’re seeing with the new variants is that it will re-infect everyone else,” Professor Spector said.
“There is very little lasting immunity, past a couple of months. So they [BA.4 and BA.5] can just infect people who have already been infected with other variants much better.”
“It’s quite rare, although not unheard of, to be getting infections every two months. But quite a lot of people are now getting them every three or four months. It’s not offering the protection that we thought it would do.”
By contrast, a prior Covid infection typically gave good protection against reinfection by BA.2, Delta and other earlier variants for about six months.
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University, said: “This is a warning about what we can expect over the autumn when we will inevitably be confronted with new variants and transmission will be higher because of people spending more time indoors.
“The autumn and winter will be challenging due to Covid, flu and other respiratory infections. Looking at the current experience with flu in Australia, it will be important to prioritize both Covid and flu jabs as we enter the autumn.”
Professor Karl Friston, a virus modeler at University College London, also expects cases to surge to new levels in the autumn.
“Our modeling suggests Covid cases will certainly hit a new high in the autumn; possibly far exceeding any previous waves,” he said.
BA.4 and BA.5 are also thought to be more severe than BA.2, although less so than Delta, which is pushing up hospitalizations.
UK hospital admissions for Covid have risen from 536 in the UK on 27 May to 1,406 on June 26 (the most recent date for which data is available).
But while concerning, this is far below the 4,580 recorded at the peak in January 2021 and 3,284 in April 2020.
Deaths remain close to the lowest levels they have been this year and well below previous peaks.
This all suggests that protection against severe disease from vaccination and previous infection remains good – even if it is doing much less to protect against a mild or asymptomatic infection.
Professor Friston says: “I think it is unlikely that we will ever return to the levels of hospitalization or fatality rates that we have seen in the past.
“Our modeling suggests that peak hospitalizations and death rates – next autumn – will not exceed the levels seen in early 2022.”
Daily hospitalizations spanned from about 1,000 to 2,000 during January and February.
“If this is right, then the main concerns now are the morbidity costs due to long Covid and pressures on public health and welfare services due to Covid-related illness,” he said.
Prof Spector said, however, that the sheer scale of the looming Covid wave meant hospitalizations would rise significantly from current levels – even if the lower admittance rate kept them below previous peaks.
“Given the state of our NHS it’s a problem. Proportionately it’s less of a problem but if we have these massive numbers then for the individual there’s less risk but for the population there’s more risk. So I am worried about this wave and also about the next wave. There’s no time for complacency – in the workplace particularly,” he said.
Steve Griffin, a virologist at Leeds University, said: “I am concerned by how hospitalizations are tracking cases. These numbers really are concerning and deaths will of course lag behind.”
“This level of prevalence also means longer Covid, which should not be ignored, while the poor vaccination rates in more deprived populations and in younger children need to be urgently addressed.”