Covid is now more rife in England than it was before Christmas, when gloomy scientists were calling for another lockdown to thwart the Omicron threat.
Gold-standard surveillance data estimates more than 3million people — or roughly one in 20 — were infected on March 12, the latest date available.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) projection marked a 28 per cent increase on the week before, taking it to levels exceeding the sky-high rates seen in the festive period. At the time, Boris Johnson was actively considering adopting tough coronavirus curbs to slow the spread of the ultra-transmissible variant.
Grim modelling by SAGE had warned of up to 6,000 deaths a day, prompting the Government’s own advisers to call for stringent measures. Some doom-mongering scientists even wanted a circuit-breaker.
But Boris Johnson held his nerve and stuck to the ‘Plan B’ measures already in place, which saw the return of work from home, face masks in public places and a ramping up of the booster programme.
Covid deaths peaked at 300 a day — similar to levels seen in a bad flu winter and a fraction of rates seen during the darkest days of the pandemic. NHS hospitals were never overwhelmed and intensive care admissions barely budged.
Experts believe the fresh resurgence, driven by England’s ‘Freedom Day’ and the rise of an even more infectious strain of Omicron called BA.2, will die out in the next fortnight without crippling the health service. Booster jabs are just as effective against the new variant as they are its predecessor and a fourth vaccine roll-out is imminent. No10 has no plans to U-turn on its ‘living with Covid’ strategy.
The ONS infection survey, based on tens of thousands of swabs carried out every week, found as many as one in 13 people were infected in the worst-hit area of Sutton in London on March 12.
But in Scotland infections rose to an all-time high, with 376,000 estimated to have been infected over the same period — or one in 14 people. Cases also ticked up in Wales, estimates suggest, but fell in Northern Ireland.
The above graph shows the daily estimates of Covid cases from the Office for National Statistics gold-standard survey. It reveals cases have now surged above the levels at Christmas, when scientists were calling for a lockdown
Weekly Covid cases have now reached an all-time high in Scotland, official data from the Office for National Statistics suggests. It came after Nicola Sturgeon extended the mask mandate in the country
Government data showed cases have risen in every area of England for two weeks in a row (left). In eight in ten boroughs they rose by more than 50 per cent over the week to March 13 (red) compared to the previous seven-day spell, and in Wiltshire and North Lincolnshire (dark red) they doubled. This was a significant surge from the previous week
Pictured above are the weekly estimates of Covid cases for England since the survey began. It reveals that cases rose 28 per cent last week compared to the previous seven-day spell. The uptick is being driven by the more infectious Omicron variant BA.2 and, ministers say, by relaxing the final Covid restrictions
Covid cases are rising in every region of England, official figures show, ticking up fastest in the South East and East Midlands
Covid cases are also surging in all age groups, rising fastest among under-16s and those aged 50 to 69 years old
The ONS survey showed BA.2 was behind the majority of cases in each UK nation, with the proportion rising in a week
The ONS survey is seen as the best way of tracking the Covid outbreak because it is based on random swabs of over 100,000 people, meaning it can detect community spread.
It is separate from the daily cases published every week day by the Government, solely based on positive results from routine PCR and lateral flow tests. Rates can be skewed by fewer people coming forward.
Free swabbing across England is set to end at the start of April, with the country shifting to relying on the ONS survey to track its Covid outbreak.
Scotland will stop handing out free lateral flows in May, while in Wales they will no longer be available from the end of June. Northern Ireland is yet to outline its plans.
Get set for ANOTHER round of boosters this autumn
Britain’s Covid booster vaccine programme is gearing up for another round of inoculations this autumn, the Health Secretary has revealed.
Fourth jabs will be dished out to all over-75s, care home residents and patients with weak immune systems from next week.
But Sajid Javid hinted last night that millions more may be eligible for top-up doses later this year, ahead of the country’s third Covid winter.
Grilled about the topic on ITV’s Peston programme, he did not specify exactly who would be invited in any roll-out this autumn. However, he admitted there may be a ‘need to give a lot more people a boost’.
Experts have speculated another inoculation drive this year could be expanded to include over-50s, effectively covering the same groups who will be offered a free flu vaccine on the NHS.
When asked if the booster drive would be widened to the general population, Mr Javid said: ‘I think at some point they will.’
He claimed the Government would follow the advice of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI), a panel of influential scientists that have guided No10 through their historic inoculation campaigns.
Mr Javid insisted the group had been ‘clear’, adding: ‘Their most recent advice is they think towards the end of this year, maybe in the autumn, there will be a need to give a lot more people a boost, an offer of a boost. But I’ll wait for that advice.’
Covid cases rose across all regions and all age groups in England last week, the ONS survey found.
Infections rose fastest in the South East (up 66 per cent in a week, to one in 13 people infected), the East Midlands (up 50.9 per cent, to one in 17) and Yorkshire and the Humber (up 42 per cent, to one in 20).
At the other end of the scale was the East of England (up five per cent, to one in 20), West Midlands (14 per cent, to one in 25) and the North East (up 34 per cent, to one in 25).
Breaking the figures down by age group showed Covid cases were rising fastest among under-16s and people aged 50 to 69 years old.
UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) figures published yesterday showed all 149 local authorities in England recorded an uptick in Covid cases last week.
Nationally, cases have been spiralling for a fortnight on the back of the nation’s ‘Freedom Day’, which Health Secretary Sajid Javid insisted was ‘expected’. Climbing infection rates are also being blamed on BA.2, which is now behind three-quarters of cases in the country.
But Professor Paul Hunter, an infectious diseases expert at the University of East Anglia, predicted the resurgence would likely run out of steam before April.
He told MailOnline: ‘Covid cases will likely peak next week or the week after that, but likely before the end of this month. We should then see quite a rapid fall like in the Netherlands and Denmark.’
Latest estimates from Government scientists, released yesterday, show vaccines are just as effective at stopping people falling ill with BA.2.
Despite statistics showing a clear uptick in Covid hospitalisations over the past fortnight, at least half are thought to be ‘incidental’ cases — those who test positive after being admitted for another reason, or beat the illness only to fall ill with something else.
It may mean the recent rise in hospital admissions is more likely to reflect infection rates in the community, rather than severe illness.
Intensive care rates have barely budged and are still 15 times lower than seen during the darkest days of previous waves, with sky-high immunity rates and BA.2’s milder nature blunting the virus’s threat.
The UK Health Security Agency’s (UKHSA) weekly infection report showed Covid cases rose in every region and every age group last week.
Across England’s boroughs the biggest weekly surges were recorded in North Lincolnshire (up 106 per cent in a week), Wiltshire (up 101 per cent), Sefton (up 98 per cent), Dorset (up 97 per cent) and Cumbria (up 96 per cent).
Underlining the pace of the uptick in infections, the smallest week-on-week rise was the 27 per cent recorded in Hackney, followed by 31 per cent in Southwark and 33 per cent in Newham.
The surges were recorded even as the number of PCR tests carried out fell 30 per cent in a week to 600,000, and lateral flow testing fell 15 per cent to 1.3million.
The rise of a more infectious version of Omicron, scientifically named BA.2, has been blamed for the uptick. It is the blue area above, and is now behind more than seven in ten infections. The light green is the Delta variant, from India, and the yellow is the old Omicron variant. Ministers have suggested surging infections could also be down to dropping all restrictions
The above map shows the proportion of all cases triggered by BA.2 across England in the week to March 5, the latest available. The variant is now dominant across the country
The UK Health Security Agency’s weekly report showed Covid cases ticked up in every age group last week compared to the previous seven-day spell
Infections also rose across all nine of England’s regions last week compared to the previous seven-day spell
This was despite the number of lateral flows carried out falling by 15 per cent in a week, and the number of PCRs dropping by 30 per cent over the same time period
Despite cases plunging in both Denmark and the Netherlands, deaths have yet to follow suit. Experts have argued that a large share are incidental, however
Professor Hunter said the rise was ‘largely down’ to BA.2 but that it was not the only driver.
He told MailOnline: ‘The rate of growth in BA.2 has increased since March 1, and the rate of decline of the other Omicron variants has also slowed.
‘This is probably [also] down to relaxing the remaining restrictions a bit too early. Either directly as a result of the relaxation or indirectly from people mixing more.
‘Respiratory viruses like Covid always spread more rapidly during autumn and winter and it would probably have been better in my view to wait till the end of March when we are into spring.’
Asked when the wave might peak, he said this was likely to be ‘fairly soon’ followed by a rapid decline similar to that seen in Denmark where the sub-variant was dominant weeks ago.
Despite cases plunging in both Denmark and the Netherlands, deaths have yet to follow suit. Experts have argued that a large share are incidental, however.
BA.2 was behind 75 per cent of Covid cases over the week to March 5, according to the latest available data from the UK’s largest Covid surveillance centre the Sanger Institute. This is a jump from 58 per cent the week before.
Yet latest UKHSA figures suggest the sub-variant — thought to be as infectious as measles — was behind 83 per cent of Covid infections last week.
Experts have repeatedly said there is no reason to be concerned because there is no evidence that the variant is more lethal than the old Omicron, which never overwhelmed the NHS.
The UKHSA’s weekly vaccine report showed vaccines were still 40 per cent effective at preventing symptomatic Covid infection among people who got AstraZeneca’s jab and then a booster up to 15 weeks ago.
For those who got Pfizer for their first and second dose followed by a booster effectiveness against symptomatic infection was around 60 per cent.
Vaccines remained up to 90 per cent effective against hospitalisation triggered by the virus, the report said.
The above shows vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic disease with Delta (black squares) and Omicron (circles) after two or three doses of the Covid vaccine. It reveals protection gradually wanes as ministers prepare to dish out boosters to the most vulnerable people
The above shows vaccine effectiveness against symptomatic disease with Delta (black square) and Omicron (circle) following a Pfizer vaccination and a booster