Covid-19 infections in the UK have jumped by nearly 800,000 in a week, with parts of the country approaching record levels seen in the spring.
The number of hospitals also continues to increase, driven by the spread of the latest Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 coronavirus subvariants.
A total of 3.5million people in private households are estimated to have had Covid-19 in the past week, up 29% from 2.7million the previous week, according to the Office for National Statistics ( NSO).
This is the highest estimate of the total number of infections since mid-April, but it remains below the record 4.9 million recorded at the peak of the Omicron BA.2 wave in late March.
Sarah Crofts, ONS Analytical Results Manager for the Covid-19 Infections Survey, said: “Infections show no signs of abating, with rates approaching levels last seen in March at most. strong wave BA.2.
“Rates have continued to rise across the UK and among all age groups. We will continue to monitor the data closely.
Everyone over the age of 50 will be offered a new Covid-19 vaccine this autumn, to boost protection ahead of possible new waves of the virus, Britain’s Health Security Agency announced on Friday.
Other dose-eligible groups will include frontline health and social care workers and people aged 5 to 49 in a clinical risk group, including pregnant women.
Professor Anthony Harnden, Vice-Chairman of the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization, said: ‘Covid-19 boosters are very effective in boosting immunity and, by providing an extra dose to those at higher risk of serious illness this fall, we hope to significantly reduce the risk of hospitalizations and deaths over the winter.
The virus currently remains most prevalent in Scotland, where 334,000 people were believed to have had Covid-19 in the week to July 7, or around one in 16 people, the ONS said.
That’s up from 312,800, or one in 17, and it’s the highest estimate for Scotland since early April.
In England, 2.9 million people were likely to have had Covid-19 in the past week, the equivalent of around one in 19 people.
That’s up from 2.2 million, or one in 25, the previous week.
Wales saw infections climb to 183,500, or one in 17 people, from 149,700, or one in 20.
In Northern Ireland, infections rose to around 107,600 people, or one in 17 – the highest level since early April, and up from 98,400, or one in 19.
James Naismith, professor of structural biology at the University of Oxford, said Scotland had “very likely” peaked in infections and England “is on its way” to that level, but the rising prevalence of the virus “would keep the NHS under pressure, especially as it affects the elderly”.
He added: “Around 98% of the population have Covid-19 antibodies at a high level. The current strain of Omicron evolved to evade this immune response and cause infection. It’s very good at it – prevalence is high for the summer. It would have been higher in winter.
“Neither vaccination nor prior infection – with a non-Omicron strain – offers strong protection against Omicron infection; this is why the number of infections is high despite the fact that we all have antibodies. But the high level of antibodies in the population is why current levels of infection are not killing many more people.
The prevalence of Covid-19 in England is estimated to be highest among people in the school year aged 12 to 24, where 6.5%, or one in 15 people, were likely to have had the virus in the week last.
The second highest estimate was for those aged 25 to 34, at 6.2%.
The figures come amid signs that the month-long rise in the number of hospital patients in England testing positive for Covid-19 may be slowing.
A total of 13,975 people were in hospital as of 8am on July 15, up 14% from the previous week, NHS England said.
Seven days earlier, on July 8, the week-on-week increase was 31% – up from 39% in early July.
The number of Covid-19 patients is approaching the levels reached during the two waves of infection earlier this year.
But if the rate of increase continues to slow, the current wave could end up peaking below the 16,600 views at the height of the Omicron BA.2 wave in April.
The number of patients in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is currently around three-quarters of the peak reached in wave BA.2.
About six in 10 hospitalized patients who test positive for Covid-19 are being treated primarily for something else, rather than the virus.
But they will have to be isolated from patients who do not have Covid, which will put additional pressure on hospital staff who are already struggling to clear a record backlog of treatment.
The total death toll from Covid-19 in the UK was confirmed earlier this week to have exceeded 200,000.
A total of 200,247 people now have coronavirus recorded on their death certificate since the start of the pandemic, according to the ONS.
This includes all instances where Covid-19 was listed on a person’s death certificate, either as the primary cause of death or as a contributing factor.
Coronavirus-related deaths have remained low by historical standards during each of the waves this year, reflecting the success of vaccines in weakening the link between infection and serious illness.
Analysis by the PA news agency of ONS data shows the number of deaths involving coronaviruses in the UK each week has remained mostly below 1,000 since the start of last year, peaking between 1,000 and 2,000 each time infections jumped.
In contrast, during the wave caused by the Alpha variant in January 2021, the weekly figure peaked at nearly 10,000.