A rise in covid infections in England suggests the country’s anticipated winter wave has begun, a leading government health official has warned.
A total of 7,024 people with coronavirus were in hospital in England as of 28 September, according to NHS figures. This is up 37 per cent from 5,142 a week earlier and is the highest figure since 19 August.
The number of cases per 100,000 population recorded in the seven days to 27 September has risen to 6.9, up from 5.5 in the previous week, the latest data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) shows. Over this period, there was a “large increase” in those aged over 80, it said.
Dr Mary Ramsay, director of Public Health Programs at UKHSA, said: “It is clear now that we are seeing an increase which could signal the start of the anticipated winter wave of Covid-19 – so the time to boost your protection with a vaccine if you’re eligible is now.
“Cases have started to climb and hospitalizations are increasing in the oldest age groups.”
The hospital admission rate for the latest week was 7.62 per 100,000 population, an increase from 4.96 in the previous week. Hospital admission rates for Covid are highest in the North East, with a rate of 10.82 per 100,000 population, according to UKHSA.
Patient levels topped 14,000 in mid-July at the peak of the wave of infections caused by the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of the virus, after which they started to fall steadily. But this decline came to a halt in mid-September.
Covid hospital data is published once a week, on Thursdays. The latest figures show that all regions are recording a rise in patients, with South West England back to levels last seen at the end of July. Numbers remain well below those reached during the early waves of the pandemic, however.
Alongside the over-80s, infection rates have also clearly risen among the 70-79 and 60-69 age groups, according to the UKHSA data.
Dr Ramsay added: “In the coming weeks, we expect a double threat of low immunity and widely circulating flu and Covid-19, creating an unpredictable winter and additional pressure on health services.
“While Covid-19 and flu can be mild infections for many, we must not forget that they can cause severe illness or even death for those most vulnerable in our communities.”
Separate figures published last week by the Office for National Statistics showed that Covid infections in England had increased for the first time since July.
Some 766,500 people in private households were estimated to have tested positive for coronavirus in the week to 14 September, or around one in 70 – up from 705,800, or one in 75, in the previous week.
More recent data from the Zoe Health Study, which is based on symptoms reported by volunteers across the country, suggests that an average of one in 32 people in the UK were likely to have symptomatic Covid at the start of this week, with rates rising in all-age groups.
Professor Tim Spector, co-founder of the Zoe study, said: “With rates on the rise, especially in the vulnerable elderly age groups, the impact on hospitalizations could be higher.
“However, the youngest age group are showing possible early signs of case numbers slowing. Children tend to be a leader of infection trends, so if this continues next week it is possible that the Covid wave might not be as bad as previously predicted.”
All people aged 65 and over are currently eligible for an autumn booster dose of Covid-19 vaccine, providing they had their last jab at least three months ago.
Doses are also available to frontline health and care workers, pregnant women and people with a weakened immune system.
A booster will eventually be offered to everyone aged 50 and over.
NHS director for vaccinations and screening Steve Russell said: “This winter could be the first time we see the effects of the so-called ‘twindemic’ with both Covid-19 and flu in full circulation, so it is vital that those most susceptible to serious illness from these viruses come forward for vaccines in order to protect themselves and those around them.
“If you have been offered a flu vaccination or Covid-19 booster you should book in as soon as possible and with more vaccination centers than ever before this year, they are quick, convenient and will provide vital protection this winter.”
Additional reporting by Press Association