Autumn Covid numbers peak at lower levels – but flu cases are on the up

Britain’s current wave of Covid-19 cases appears to be peaking at a lower level than previous outbreaks of the Omicron variant of the disease, researchers have revealed.

The news is encouraging – though scientists have also warned that a further wave of the disease could sweep the nation before the end of the year. “We need to be vigilant and monitor the data with great care, all the time,” said Professor Mark Woolhouse, of Edinburgh University.

According to last week’s ONS survey, Covid case numbers have flattened out or are falling in five of nine English regions, as well as in Northern Ireland and Scotland. At the same time, children now have the lowest prevalence of the disease for some weeks.

And while cases are still rising in 50-69 year olds, there has been a fall in prevalence among over-70s. “Hopefully that will soon be mirrored by a fall in hospitalisations,” added Woolhouse.

But if the short-term prospects of avoiding a new wave of Covid-19 cases look fairly promising, longer-term forecasts are less reassuring because of the uncertainties involved. “The problem is that we have now got a soup of around 300 Covid-19 variants in existence,” said Professor Andrew Lee, of Sheffield University. “At the same time, different populations have got varying levels of immunity to Covid-19. That makes it really difficult to predict how future waves are going to behave.”

Scientists have also warned that the nation faces the prospect of a parallel flu epidemic this winter, one that could be fuelled by low immunity levels in a population that has lost protection during Covid pandemic restrictions. This was raised last week when it was revealed that flu cases had climbed in England – though levels are relatively low overall.

London mayor, Sadiq Khan, receives his Covid-19 booster jab after having his flu vaccination, earlier this month. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

However, these fears were tempered by Professor Francois Balloux, of University College London. “The one piece of good news is that the flu vaccine that is now being given turns out to be really well matched to the strains that have begun to circulate in the population. That means it should provide good protection and hold down hospitalisations.”

Predictions about future outbreaks of diseases like Covid or flu needed to be treated with care, added Woolhouse. “This time last year, when we had quite high levels of the Delta variant of Covid-19, expert after expert predicted really huge waves of the disease would sweep Britain in the autumn. And it never happened.”

Instead, the nation was struck by a completely new variant, Omicron, which affected unprecedented numbers of people last winter. New sub-variants of Omicron have since appeared and these are circulating with one version, Omicron BA 2.75.2, being viewed as a serious potential threat. “However, it is still relatively rare in the UK,” added Woolhouse.

Nevertheless, scientists accept that the risk of a completely new variant, one with severe pathogenic impacts, could appear at any time. “As long as Covid remains mild for most people, and doesn’t overwhelm health systems, governments will be able to ride the wave,” added Lee. “But if we get a more pathogenic, severe variant then that will dictate a very different response. And that remains a risk, without doubt.”

Balloux said the prospect of a lethal new variant appearing remains scientists’ greatest fear about Covid and will require constant surveillance by health authorities and doctors, he told the Observer. “However, unless something terrible happens and a deadly new variant appears, I think in terms of Covid, things should be better than last winter and the winter before,” he said.

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