Covid cases across UK surge more than 30pc in a week

Covid - Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images
Covid - Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

Covid infections have jumped by almost a third in a week, official data showed as health officials gave the first public backing to an omicron-specific booster vaccine for the autumn.

Around 2.3 million people in the UK now have the virus, up by more than half a million – around 32 per cent – from the previous week.

European health officials said on Friday that data show omicron-specific jabs “increase and extend” protection. Moderna has said it has hundreds of millions of doses of its omicron-specific bivalent jab in storage ready to be administered.

Official NHS guidance sent to GPs earlier this week revealed that the autumn booster jab campaign will begin on Sep 1, but a new omicron vaccine will need approval from the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) before it can be used.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI) has recommended that over-65s, adult care home residents, front line health workers and vulnerable patients should receive a fourth jab.

Officials have earmarked September for the launch of the new booster campaign amid fears of an unusually early flu season this winter.

Covid has not been this prevalent in the community since late April, but the current wave is still substantially less severe than the all-time peak of 4.9 million infections during the omicron BA.2 wave earlier this year.

Data also show that infections are rising in all regions and across all age groups, with the ONS attributing blame to BA.4 and BA.5, the now dominant sub-variants of omicron.

Academics are not yet overly worried about the wave, but there are concerns that there may be another in the autumn or winter that could coincide with an early flu season as well as rising monkeypox infections.

On Friday, the European Medicines Agency became the first global regulatory body to give its backing to an omicron-specific jab to combat waning immunity.

Moderna last week announced that its omicron-specific bivalent vaccine – which includes the original and latest Covid strains – gives good protection against omicron.

Dr Paul Burton, Moderna’s chief medical officer, said it could be a “turning point” and open the door to annual boosters similar to yearly flu shots.

He added that British health officials had expressed “definite interest” and discussions were already under way, while the data has already been submitted to the MHRA.

Penny Ward, a visiting professor in pharmaceutical medicine at King’s College London, said last week: “It certainly makes sense to consider use of this new bivalent vaccine, if available, for the UK autumn Covid booster campaign.”

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) weekly coronavirus infection survey found that around one in 30 people in England had Covid for the week ending June 24.

Prevalence was similar in Wales, slightly higher in Northern Ireland – where it was one in 25 – and notably higher in Scotland, at one in 18.

Prof Tim Spector, the scientific co-founder of the Zoe symptom tracker app, said he expected more cases in the coming weeks, fuelled by festivals and other mass events.

“The only good news is that the symptoms are still mild, with fewer deaths than in other earlier waves – though worryingly the number of hospitalisations is rapidly increasing,” he said.

Prof Spector said he would “still advise people to protect themselves by wearing good quality FFP2 or FFP3 masks in crowded or poorly ventilated areas and testing themselves if possible if they have any Covid symptoms”.

The number of hospital patients with Covid is rising, with early signs of an increase in intensive care admissions among older age groups. Some 9,389 patients in England had Covid as of July 1, up 39 per cent on the previous week, government figures show.

That is just over half the level of patients recorded at the peak of the Omicron BA.2 wave, and around six in 10 hospital patients who test positive for Covid are being treated primarily for something else.

Prof Denis Kinane, an immunology professor at the University of Bern and the founding scientist of Cignpost Diagnostic, told The Telegraph that many people “have let their guard down” over Covid.

“When we’re in crowds, we’ve got to be careful,” he said. “We’ve got to ideally be vaccinated, and we’ve got to keep our distance in enclosed spaces.

“One of the biggest things we have got to do is, when we know we have got Covid, to isolate and not mix with people or to wear masks.

“There’s a lot of people letting their guard down right now. We don’t want to be sleepwalking into a perfect storm here. We’ve got five per cent rates in Scotland right now – that’s an awful lot.”

Data released on Friday also showed that Covid was the biggest killer in England and Wales last year, claiming 67,350 lives. The virus accounted for around one in nine of the 586,334 deaths registered last year, ONS data show. Dementia was the second leading cause of death (61,250) followed by heart disease (56,960).