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20 October 2022

Why are Covid-19 cases rising again?

Colder temperatures, increased socialising, waning immunity and Omicron subvariants are all causing a coronavirus increase in the UK.

By Harry Clarke-Ezzidio and Saywah Mahmood

This article was originally published on 17 October 2022.

As temperatures drop, Britain is experiencing the start of a third consecutive winter in which confirmed cases of Covid-19 are rising. Around one in 37 people across the UK now has Covid-19, according to estimates by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) – a rise from one in 50 from the week before.

While experts are wary of rising cases, increases in infections are not coming as a massive surprise as it gets colder. “This is the first year where people are going to be mixing normally so I’m expecting that there is going to be more infection going around,” Mary Ramsay, head of immunisations at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), told Sky News. “The big difference” between now and previous years, Ramsay continued, “is that most people have been vaccinated.” 

How many people are catching Covid-19?

The recent uptick in cases is nowhere near that of previous years, which saw both national and regional lockdowns imposed. Infections are currently rising across all home nations, except Scotland. The picture is more uncertain there according to one survey of the nation conducted by the ONS, which accounts for the week beginning 29 September.

Around 1.7 million people across the UK would have tested positive for Covid-19 in the past week – up from 1.3 million the week before, the body estimates. In England not only are positive cases increasing: tests, hospitalisations and deaths are also rising. 

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The latest government figures, available online, shows that the number of tests for Covid-19 between 6-12 October went up by 2.1 per cent compared with the previous seven-day period. Between 4-10 October 2022, there was a 3.7 per cent increase in people in hospital with coronavirus. Deaths within 28 days of a positive coronavirus death between 2-9 October were also up by 14.9 per cent compared with the previous seven-day period.

It is important to note that other factors could also be at play; not all deaths or hospitalisations will be directly related to a positive Covid test.

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Across the rest of the country, the virus is estimated to be infecting one in 40 people in Wales (up from one in 50 the week before); one in 40 in Northern Ireland (the same as the previous week); and one in 50 in Scotland (down from one in 45).

What’s behind the rise and who are the most vulnerable people?

As with the flu every winter, the combination of colder temperatures, in addition to people mixing indoors (which is more likely because it’s cold) makes viruses easier to spread. Mary Ramsay of the UKHSA said, "The main reason is probably just the fact that we're going back to normal and mixing more." Immunity from previous vaccinations and booster shots do wane over time, and the presence of Omicron subvariants – which evolve from the original variant, and are not new strains of Covid-19 – may also account for rising cases.

But what’s most concerning experts is that older people are the demographic that is suffering the highest number of positive cases. Around 3.7 per cent of people aged 70 and over in England have the virus, according to ONS estimates. The next highest group in England is those aged 50-69, 3 per cent of whom are estimated to have the virus.

Vaccinations are likely to help older populations in the fight against Covid-19, Ramsay said: “Certainly the older age group is very, very highly vaccinated so that should protect against more severe forms of disease."

There are early concerns, however, over the discovery of a new Omicron subvariant, called "XBB" - or Gryphon. Of all the Omicron subvariants to emerge, an early study suggests that XBB has the best ability to avoid antibody protections gained from vaccination or having had Coronavirus, though experts say there is still a lot to learn about the strain.

It's important to note that no cases of the new Omicron subvariant have been discovered in the UK - but it has been discovered in 17 countries, including the U.S, India, Japan and Australia.

What has the government said about rising cases?

Not much. In the middle of trying to reassure the Conservatives of her ability to govern, while also making various policy U-turns, Liz Truss has not so far acknowledged the developing Covid situation.

The Department for Health and Social Care, meanwhile, has tweeted information about rising cases to its followers on Twitter – including a video from Dr Thomas Waite, the deputy chief medical officer for England, encouraging selected groups to get booster jabs and the annual winter flu jab.  

It feeds into a wider NHS campaign, which encourages people aged 50 and over, care home residents, health and social care workers, and those in clinical risk groups to get a Covid-19 booster and the winter flu jab this autumn. In particularly, the 6.6 million people who are most vulnerable to serious illness from Covid-19 are being encouraged to book their booster jab as soon as possible.

[See also: We’re turning our climate into a weapon of mass destruction]

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