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The UK is fighting a fifth wave of Covid as infections soar and large summer events could see cases rise even higher, experts have warned.
Coronavirus cases have increased sharply in recent weeks, with the latest figures showing 1.7 million people testing positive across the UK, a 23 per cent increase on the week before. The increase is being driven by the recent BA.4 and BA.5 variants, subvariants of Omicron.
There are concerns that the return of mass events for the first time after the pandemic – such as Glastonbury over the weekend, Notting Hill Carnival and the Edinburgh Festival in August – will see Covid continue to spiral upward.
Healthcare chiefs have warned the spike in cases will have a significant impact on an NHS “already on its knees”.
Hospitalisations for Covid have increased 31 per cent week on week, rising at a rate higher than the previous Omicron outbreak in March.
Professor Tim Spector, of the ZOE Covid symptom study app, said the fifth wave of coronavirus has already started. “We’re in a wave at the moment,” he said, “heading towards a quarter of a million cases a day, that’s a wave already.”
He added that summer events could “potentially have a big effect” on Covid rates.
“Events like Glastonbury will drive up cases but the question is how much do they account for,” Professor Spector told The Independent.
“We’ve relaxed everything most people don’t think there’s a Covid problem at the moment, most people don’t wear masks, or even worry about cold-like symptoms.”
He added that it is unclear how festivals, usually attended by younger people, will impact the rest of the population adding that relaxed attitudes to Covid could also play a part in rising infection rates.
“We’re heading towards a quarter of a million cases a day,” he said. “The question is whether it stops and comes back again, everyone is predicting an autumn wave but I don’t think anyone predicted this summer wave – that’s the difference.
“None of the modelling allowed for this, it didn’t take into account the effect of BA.5 variant which is dominant now.”
Professor Azeem Majeed, head of primary care and public health at Imperial College London, also agreed that the BA.5 variant was driving a new wave in the UK which could be exacerbated by large events.
“In the previous two years [2020 and 2021], we did see Covid-19 rates increase later in the summer,” Professor Majeed told The Independent. “It looks like Covid-19 rates in the UK are starting to increase again and increased mixing of people – particularly if this takes place in poorly ventilated indoor settings – will keep infection rates high.”
Professor Majeed emphasised that vaccination still offers good protection against death and serious illness from Omicron variants.
But Professor Spector warned that the ability of BA.5 to evade immunity meant more people could be infected, including those who had already had other variants.
“There will definitely be disruption this summer, we know four in 100 people have this [variant] for longer than a month, and many people end up long-term sick. I don’t think many people are going to die of it but it has big social and economic impacts,” Professor Spector said.
“Having our NHS, which already on its knees, working like it’s in the middle of winter, we’re getting up to 1,000 hospitalisations a day now, it’s not good news, that figure is going to go up,” he added.
Of the 1.7 million current infections, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) says 1.3 million people tested positive in the week ending 18 June in England – a 21 per cent increase on the week prior. Scotland saw the biggest increase of 42 per cent with 250,700 infected; 68,500 in Wales and 59,900 in Northern Ireland.
Professor Linda Bauld, a public health expert at the University of Edinburgh, agreed the BA.5 variant would cause disruption in the coming weeks.
She said events, particularly those indoors with poor ventilation, would drive infections in a way that the European Championships tournament did last summer.
More than 9,000 infections were linked to the games in 2021, monitored by the government’s mass events test scheme and scientists at the time said the tournament “generated a significant risk to public health”.
“I think it’s unlikely we’re going to see a huge rise of the kind that we saw for example towards the end of the Christmas period last year,” Professor Bauld told The Independent. “But we’re already in the middle of another rise in infections and the way the numbers have been going in the last three weeks I expect those numbers to continue to rise for a little while.
“Then they’ll probably go back down again then we’ll be worried again about the autumn.”
In a briefing on Friday, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) warned that Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 now make up more than half of all new Covid cases.
Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser at the UKHSA, said: “It is clear that the increasing prevalence of Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 are significantly increasing the case numbers we have observed in recent weeks.
“We have seen a rise in hospital admissions in line with community infections but vaccinations are continuing to keep ICU admissions and deaths at low levels.”