Covid infection levels in the UK have risen by almost 30% in a week, with an estimated 3.5 million people thought to have had the disease in the first week of July, as a leading epidemiologist called for a return of free lateral flow tests.
Figures from the Office for National Statistics based on swabs collected from randomly selected households show that 2,873,600 people in the community in England are estimated to have had Covid in the weekend 6 July – about one in 19 people. The week beforethe figure was 2,154,000 people – or about one in 25.
Increases were also seen in other parts of the UK with an estimated one in 16 people in Scotland and one in 17 in both Wales and Northern Ireland thought to have had Covid in the most recent week.
Overall, about 3,498,700 people across the UK are thought to have had Covid in the most recent week, according to the survey estimates, up from 2,714,900 the week before – a rise of 28.9%.
“Infections are showing no signs of decreasing, with rates approaching levels last seen in March this year at the peak of the Omicron BA.2 wave,” said Sarah Crofts, head of analytical outputs for the Covid-19 Infection Survey.
“Rates have continued to increase across the UK and among all age groups. We will continue to closely monitor the data.”
While not yet reaching peak infection levels seen earlier this year, when about one in 13 people in England had Covid, the latest estimates are the highest yet for a summer month.
At present, infection levels are highest in the east of England, with an estimated 5.9% of people thought to have Covid in the most recent week, and among those aged from school year 12 to age 24, for which the figure was 6.5%.
Prof Rowland Kao, an epidemiologist at the University of Edinburgh, said it is unclear how much of the rise can be attributed to the wider circulation of Covid variants and how much may be down to a decline in vaccine-induced immunity or increased transmissibility of variants such as BA.4 and BA.5. Factors such as increases in contact, Kao added, are also expected to play a role.
“A slow decline in rates in Scotland does [suggest] that this is a wave that will decline again but we may be subject to further waves, especially as variants of concern will likely continue to arise,” said Kao.
“We may never experience the severe impacts of the first few waves of Covid, but we may experience several severe bumps in the road going forward, especially if Covid is combined with rises in other respiratory infections in the winter, which is likely.”
Concerns have also been raised as a result of increasing hospitalizations involving people with Covid, with hospital admissions figures approaching the peaks seen in previous waves this year. Figures for patients primarily being treated for Covid are also increasing, with data from NHS England showing a rise from 2,165 on 21 June to 4,693 on 12 July.
“My fear is that we shall now routinely face summer pressures of a kind only previously seen during winter,” said Dr Naru Narayanan, president of the HCSA, the hospital doctors’ union. “In the short term, we need more stringent infection controls, but let’s be clear that much of the current crisis predates the pandemic.”
Kao cautioned against behaving as though Covid doesn’t exist any more, noting those who are eligible should get their booster jab, while it is still important for people to isolate if they are infected.
He added that making lateral flow tests free once more would be enormously valuable, “so long as people were also encouraged to use them especially when entering risky situations such as going to crowded locations or on public transport”. Kao also backed the use of protective FFP2 masks in places with a high risk of contact.