As levels of Covid infection rise again in parts of the UK, we look at what’s behind the new wave, who can be vaccinated, and more.
What is the current situation in the UK?
According to data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), around one in 65 people in England – an estimated 857,400 people – had Covid in the week ending September 17, up from 766,500 people, or one in 70, the week before. An increase was also seen in Wales, while in Northern Ireland and Scotland the trend was unclear.
Hospitalization rates for people with Covid also rose: in the south-west the figure for the last week is 16.67 per 100,000 population – an increase of 250% since mid-September.
While the most recent data shows that the total reported hospital admissions and diagnoses in England reached 7,904 in the week ending October 3, a 33% rise on the previous seven days, asymptomatic testing through NHS institutions was interrupted at the end of August, means that the number of patients with Covid may be higher.
Currently, around 35% of Covid patients in acute trusts are treated primarily for the disease.
What is driving the new wave?
It’s probably a mixture of factors. People tend to congregate indoors as the weather turns colder, making transmission more likely. The declining immunity – whether from vaccination or previous infection – means that biological defenses against infection are lower, even though protection against severe disease may remain good.
Behavioral changes may also play a role, with people increasingly abandoning mask wearing and other interventions, while the return of students to school and students to university may have contributed to the spread.
What about variants?
While BA.5 – one of the Covid Omicron subvariants behind the latest wave – now accounts for the majority of infections, there are also new kids on the block. This includes a form of BA.5 known as BQ.1.1 which, while low in numbers, is growing rapidly in the UK.
The new sub-variants are not currently thought to be any more serious than other forms of Omicron. However, experts have warned that the large number of people who could catch Covid could be problematic, both in terms of pressure on healthcare services and disruption due to illness of staff in many different sectors, including travel.
How big a problem is this wave expected to be?
Pressure is already mounting, with several NHS trusts sounding the alarm due to high demand for services combined with difficulties in discharging patients into social care – with some already citing Covid as a contributing factor.
Another concern is that Covid may not be the only respiratory disease causing chaos this winter: Australia’s experience suggests the flu can also hit hard, raising concerns about a ‘twindemi’.
And then there is long Covid, with recent data suggesting that infection with Omicron subvariants, like earlier forms of Covid, can lead to persistent symptoms.
Can I get another Covid jab?
Currently, only certain groups of people are eligible for an autumn booster vaccination, including people at high risk of Covid and healthcare workers.
While the Department of Health and Social Care said there are currently no plans to make Covid vaccines available for private purchase, as is the case for flu vaccinations, some have suggested it is a likely future development.
However, experts have raised concerns.
Adam Finn, a professor of paediatrics at the University of Bristol and a member of the UK’s Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization (JCVI), said that most young, healthy people will still have good protection against severe disease from previous jabs or infections, meaning that the value of a booster would be to reduce their own risk of missing work and enduring a flu-like illness after infection – the main reason for boosting health and social care workers this autumn.
But, he added, such benefits would be relatively short-lived after vaccination, while uptake would have to be high to have even a transient impact on transmission.
Others urged caution for other reasons. “Allowing people to pay for Covid vaccines, if supplies allow, would be better than not offering it at all, but has the potential to increase health inequalities even further,” warned Dr Kit Yates of the University of Bath. “What would be even better would be a free offer for anyone who wants it.”
Will new measures be introduced?
It’s unlikely, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t actions individuals can take to reduce the spread of Covid or other respiratory viruses, including getting the Covid and flu vaccinations you’re eligible for, the improving indoor ventilation and wearing masks in the crowd. settings.
Experts, including Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at the UK Health Security Agency, have also stressed the importance of staying at home if you are unwell and avoiding contact with vulnerable people.