What we know about summer COVID as UK case numbers rise

It comes as a new group of variants, known as FLiRT, have emerged in recent weeks.

Woman Holding a Covid-19 Rapid Test At Home
Woman Holding a Covid-19 Rapid Test At Home

There is a "widespread impression" of a growing summer COVID wave which could be linked to the Euro 2024 football tournament, a health expert has said.

The latest government figures, published last Thursday, showed there was a 33.5% weekly increase in cases of coronavirus in England, amid concerns of a summer spike.

Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said on Monday the evidence points to a seasonal surge and hinted that it could be linked to the Euros.

He told the Science Media Centre: “The surveillance of COVID cases in the UK is far less intensive than it once was, so it is difficult to track the rise and fall of waves of infection, or to assess the severity of different variants, or to know how effective the vaccines are against them.

"Even so, there is a widespread impression of a growing 2024 summer wave, much as we saw in 2021 when – coincidently perhaps – there was also a Euros football tournament, and evidence that this contributed significantly to the spread of infection."

A new group of coronavirus variants, known as FLiRT, has recently emerged, and in May the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said it was "normal for viruses to mutate and change".

In any case, here is what we know – and don't know – about the current COVID situation in England.

First of all, we know recorded COVID cases are on the rise. According to the latest UKHSA data, there were 2,815 in the week up to 19 June, up 707 – 33.5% – from the previous seven-day period.

However, this is a low baseline. As the charts below show, cases and hospital admissions have been much higher during certain periods of the past year, such as last autumn and winter.

COVID case data over the past year. (UKHSA)
COVID case data over the past year. (UKHSA)
COVID hospital admission data over the past year. (UKHSA)
COVID hospital admission data over the past year. (UKHSA)

We also know deaths with COVID mentioned on the death certificate have slightly increased: 146 in the week to 14 June, up seven – 5% – from the previous seven-day period.

And we know the cases are being driven by a group of COVID variants collectively referred to as FLiRT. FLiRT has been on the rise in the US and now the UK.

One of the FLiRT variants, KP.3, is “likely dominant now after having overtaken KP.2”, Professor Francois Balloux, chair in computational biology systems biology at University College London, said.

Prof Balloux added “they all cause the same symptoms” and, ultimately, “the current COVID situation is not particularly concerning” in light of the emergence of FLiRT.

Prof Woolhouse said: “The waves continue to be driven by a combination of new variants and a partial waning immunity to infection. We saw the first hints of this back in 2020 when a small number of people contracted COVID for the second time, but it has since developed into a global pattern."

He predicted that in the coming decades "we will shift to a situation where most people are exposed to COVID - possibly several times - when they are young".

However, he said this would result in a build-up of immunity that will make people much less vulnerable to the disease when they are older. "To all intents and purposes, COVID-19 will become just another common cold," he said. "We’re not there yet though."

We don’t know how many cases FLiRT will cause over the summer, and whether there will be a marked difference to last summer.

We also don’t know how the situation is currently playing out in hospitals. The UKHSA’s most recent data for hospital admissions only goes up to 29 May, when 1,567 people were admitted over a seven-day period, down 151 – or 8.8% – from the previous seven days.