The number of people testing positive for coronavirus in England is showing “early signs of a potential increase", new figures show.
Around one in 1,110 people in private households in England had COVID-19 in the week to 15 May – up from one in 1,340 the previous week, according to the latest Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimates.
In its weekly report of infection estimates up to the week ending 15 May, the ONS reports that:
In England, the percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19 shows early signs of a potential increase, although rates remain low at around 1 in 1,110 people.
In Wales, the percentage of people testing positive remained low at around 1 in 4,340 people.
In Northern Ireland, the trend in the percentage of people testing positive was uncertain, equating to around 1 in 1,550 people.
In Scotland, the percentage of people testing positive has continued to decrease and is now around 1 in 1,960 people.
The ONS said that although the percentage of people testing positive for COVID was low in all regions, Yorkshire and The Humber, the North East and the South East all saw early signs of an increase.
In the North East it was one in 840 and in the South East it was one in 1,210. The South West had the lowest estimate at around one in 2,730.
The trend was uncertain for all other regions in the same week, the ONS said. Despite the warnings, Sarah Crofts, Head of Analytical Outputs for the COVID Infection Survey, said the rates were too low to say whether this was the start of a new trend.
The new data comes amid concern of the spread of the Indian variant with cases more than doubling in the space of a week.
Watch: COVID-19: 'Clusters' across the country as number of Indian variant cases rises to 3,424
Public Health England (PHE) said the latest weekly data showed there were 3,424 cases of the B1617.2 mutation – an increase of 2,111 on the previous week.
While most cases were concentrated in the North West – particularly Bolton – and London, PHE said it was seeing “clusters of cases” across the country.
Dr Meera Chand, the COVID-19 incident director at PHE, said it was essential people in the worst-affected areas who had yet to receive their second dose of the vaccine came forward as soon as it was offered.
Health officials yesterday raised concerns over a new “triple mutant” strain, that has emerged in Yorkshire.
Downing Street said the emergence of a new variant of coronavirus in Yorkshire will continue to be monitored.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: "As you’ve seen throughout the pandemic, that’s what we’ve done and we won’t hesitate to put in measures that we think are necessary to try and tackle the transmission of any variants.”
Asked whether the discovery of the new variant would have an impact on the next stage of restrictions lifting on June 21, the spokesman said the five-week gap between measures relaxing would allow the variant to be monitored.
He added: “As the Prime Minister has said, we will continue to look at all the statistical evidence and data, and we’ll set out our plans as soon as the data allows.”
Start of a third wave?
The latest figures came after Boris Johnson said on Wednesday that there was “increasing confidence” in Government that the vaccines were effective against the Indian variant.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said that the daily case rates had not shown any “sharp increases or significant areas of concern”.
However, Professor Andrew Hayward, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said he is "very concerned" about the spread of the Indian variant.
Prof Hayward said that while "localised interventions" had helped halt the spread of other variants in the past, the Indian variant of the virus is bringing a different challenge.
Asked if the UK is at the start of a third wave of coronavirus, he said: "I think so."
He said the strain was likely to spread beyond the communities it is already in and suggested that "generalised measures" may start to be needed to control it.
The government said on Friday the coronavirus reproduction number, or R value, in England has risen slightly and is now between 0.9 to 1.1. Last week, it was between 0.8 and 1.1.
R represents the average number of people each Covid-19 positive person goes on to infect.
When the figure is above 1, an outbreak can grow exponentially but when it is below 1, it means the epidemic is shrinking.
Although medical professionals have expressed fears of a third wave, the UK has vaccinated over 70% of its adult population and almost all of the most vulnerable have now had their second jab.
If there was a third wave, the success of the vaccine rollout will mean the nation is in a much better position to deal with a spike in infections.
The fear of the new variants and the uptick in infections has raised questions over whether the next round of lockdown lifting can go ahead.
Professor Neil Ferguson, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London said the plan to end social distancing on June 21 was “very much in the balance”.
He added there was a "glimmer of hope" in the Indian variant data saying the "curves are flattening," suggesting it may not be as infectious as previously thought.