Coronavirus levels rise across most of UK with 1.7m people infected

Covid infection levels are rising across much of the UK, with more than 1.7 million people thought to have had the virus in the most recent week, data has revealed.

About one in 35 people in England – 2.8% of the population – had Covid in the week ending 3 October based on swabs from randomly selected households, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics. It is an increase from one in 50 the week before.

Infection levels have also risen in Wales and Northern Ireland: for both, an estimated one in 40 people had Covid in the week ending 29 September. In Scotland, the trend remained unclear, with one in 50 people estimated to have had Covid in the same week.

In total, 1.74m people in the UK are estimated to have had Covid in the most recent survey results, a 31% rise from 1.3m people the week before.

In England, increases in infection levels were recorded for all regions except the north-east in the most recent week, and for all age groups except those aged two years to school year 11 (aged 15-16). The highest levels of infection were seen for people aged 70 and over, with about 3.7% of this age group having had Covid in the most recent week.

Sarah Crofts, Deputy Director for the COVID-19 Infection Survey, described the rise in infections amongst older age groups in England and Wales as “notable”.

The data comes as the latest Covid and flu report from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), released on Thursday, also suggested a rise in Covid cases as well as an increase in the hospital admission rate in the first full week of October.

However, NHS data suggests the rate of increase in Covid hospital admissions has slowed. In the seven days from 4-10 October there were 8,198 admissions, a 4% rise from 7,904 the week before. The preceding week, a rise of 33% had been recorded.

Dr Mary Ramsay, the director of public health programmes at UKHSA, stressed that people who were unwell or had symptoms of a respiratory infection should avoid contact with vulnerable people such as elderly people, and that wearing a mask could help reduce spread.

The latest wave of infections appears to largely be down to the BA.5 subvariant of Omicron. However, new forms of Covid are emerging from this and other variants. As a result experts have warned this winter is likely to involve a range of variants, akin to an “Omicron soup”.

Among the variants prompting interest are BQ.X, BA.2.75.2, and BF.7 – these appear to be outcompeting BA.5, with UKHSA noting they are to be prioritised for vaccine effectiveness assessments.

But according to the latest report on variants released by UKHSA, the emergence of many, similar variants, combined with changes in testing, is proving challenging when it comes to surveillance of new forms of the virus. With PCR testing now limited to certain groups, the report suggests there could be a delay of six to eight weeks or more for the growth rates of new Covid variants to be known with high certainty.

Prof John Edmunds, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said genomic surveillance was expensive and had been scaled back significantly, but it appeared some subvariants were increasing faster than BA.5, while the continued dominance of BA.5 itself was of interest.

“It represents the first time that we see a second wave of infection with the same variant – excluding waves that have been interrupted by public health interventions,” he said, adding the increase in BA.5 was probably linked to schools returning and a return to work increasing contacts, as well as waning immunity in the population.

While some have warned the current wave could be worse than the last, Edmunds suggested the dominance of BA.5 meant there was cause for optimism.

“My tentative guess would be that this BA.5 second wave will not be very large, as the decline in population immunity since the BA.5 peak in July is likely to be relatively modest,” he said.

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