We may be “living with COVID”, but that doesn’t mean the virus has gone away.
Far from it – as new data shows.
More than 3.25 million people in the UK had the infection in the week to 12 March, according to the latest results from the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) Infection Survey.
That’s about 4.8% of the population.
Prevalence of the disease fell from its New Year high – when 6.3% of us had the virus – to around 3.5% at the end of February.
But it has been rising since. So what’s going on?
Relaxed behaviours are giving the virus opportunities to spread
Some of it will be due to coronavirus restrictions being rolled back.
The ONS lifestyle survey shows face masks, tests, self-isolation, and social distancing have all fallen away since Plan B was lifted at the end of January. Social contacts have risen.
Only one in three adults are worried about the virus now, the lowest level at any stage of the pandemic, the ONS data shows.
The more relaxed behaviour is giving the virus more opportunities to spread but probably more importantly, the dominant virus is changing. And that’s the key driver of the rise in infections.
At the turn of the year, almost all COVID cases were caused by the original Omicron variant, called BA.1 – Delta was just about clinging on.
But since the middle of February a closely related spin-off of Omicron, ‘BA.2’, has been rising sharply. By 5 March, it accounted for 75% of all COVID cases.
The two viruses are so similar that they are called sub-variants. Some scientists refer to them as sisters.
BA.2 strand of COVID is driving up cases
The vaccine is just as effective against them, and both cause the same relatively mild disease.
But BA.2 is 1.4 times more infectious than the original Omicron – the rocket booster that is driving up cases.
The rapid spread of BA.2 is already impacting hospitals. Admissions are up.
But significantly, the uptick in cases and hospitalisations started at the same time – around 25 February. Normally, there would be a lag of a week or two between people being infected and developing serious disease.
It suggests that as hospitals are catching up with the waiting list backlog, many patients are coming onto the wards with the virus rather than because of it.
That’s still disruptive for hospitals because they have to treat positive patients separately. And high rates of sickness in staff can add to pressure – not just for the NHS, but for businesses in the wider economy.
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Denmark points the way
So are we heading back to the dark days of winter?
Well, Denmark offers hope.
It saw the rise in BA.2 before any other country – with a sharp peak followed by a steep fall.
Like the UK, Denmark has high vaccination rates.
That wall of immunity – topped up by people having a relatively mild dose of COVID – is still strong.
So cases are likely to rise in the UK for a couple more weeks and then decline – before rising again in a few months when the effects of the booster begin to wane.
COVID is expected to become endemic. It’ll come and go, probably for decades.
But for now, the vaccine is proving good enough for us to return to a much more normal life.