Experts have warned the UK is already at the start of a ‘devastating’ new Covid-19 wave that could cripple the NHS this winter.
Early data revealed that new subvariants of Omicron are ‘evolving around the immunity’ that was built up through vaccinations and Covid infections.
Experts allege the new immune-evasive variants may cause ‘real problems’ for the ‘already on its knees’ NHS as the cold weather approaches.
The stark warning comes as the UK’s autumn Covid wave saw cases rise 14 per cent, according to the latest figures which cover data for the week ending September 17.
Approximately 1.1million people tested positive for the virus in the latest survey, marking the first sustained rise since mid-July, when the summer wave peaked and ministers faced calls to bring back pandemic-era restrictions.
Officials allege a drop in testing and the inadequate surveillance of new immune-evasive subvariants has created the ‘perfect storm’ for another Covid spike.
The graph shows the total number of Covid patients in England’s hospitals per day, divided into those who were admitted because they were unwell from Covid (blue line) and those given a bed for another ailment — and just happened to test positive (pink line)
Covid experts say the immune-evasive variants of the virus are already ‘starting to cause a slight increase in infections.’
‘It looks like we’re in the start of the next wave and this time it’s affected older people slightly earlier than the last wave,’ Professor Tim Spector, co-founder of the Covid ZOE app, told The Independent.
He explained that symptoms are also presenting themselves slightly differently than in prior variants, meaning many infected individuals aren’t seeking Covid tests.
‘Many people are still using the government guidelines about symptoms which are wrong,’ Prof Spector argued.
‘At the moment, Covid starts in two-thirds of people with a sore throat. Fever and loss of smell are really rare now – so many old people may not think they’ve got Covid. They’d say it’s a cold and not be tested.’
‘We’ve really taken our eye off the ball with Covid tests,’ echoed University of Warwick virologist Professor Lawrence Young. ‘We can only detect variants or know what’s coming by doing sequencing from PCR testing, and that’s not going on anywhere near the extent it was a year ago.
‘People are going to get various infections over the winter but won’t know what they are because free tests aren’t available – it’s going to be a problem.
‘Another angle is the economic pressure. If people do feel poorly they’re not likely to take time off work. You have a perfect storm here, really, of inadequate surveillance, people not coming forward for vaccination and the economic situation.’
Covid hospitalisation data shows 7,024 infected patients were taking up hospital beds by 8am on Wednesday — up 37 per cent in a week and the highest figure in more than two months. Patient numbers had been falling since mid-July from a peak of 14,000, which was triggered by the Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5. But this decline came to a halt in mid-September
Health experts have also found that the newer variants of Omicron – BA.2.75.2 derived from BA.2, and BQ1.1 derived from BA.5 – have been able to escape the immune system.
‘What’s interesting about these variants is that although they’re slightly different in how they’ve come about they’ve come up with the same changes to get around the body’s immune system,’ Prof Young told the newspaper.
‘What we’re finding is the virus is evolving around the immunity that’s been built up through vaccines and countless infections people have had.’
Professor Tim Spector (pictured), co-founder of the Covid ZOE app, alleged the new immune-evasive variants may cause ‘real problems’ for the ‘already on its knees’ NHS as winter approaches
He added: ‘The biggest concern we’re seeing is that in early data these variants are starting to cause a slight increase in infections.
‘In a way, this was to be expected but it does demonstrate that we’re not out of the woods yet at all with this virus, sadly.’
Both professors have called on the government to make ‘stronger and proactive messaging’ ahead of the looming winter.
Prof Young, repeating calls made by public health experts, urged people to get their booster jabs, noting how the new bivalent vaccine boosters tackle multiple variants – which is ‘key to preventing a devastating wave.’
He did acknowledge there are still questions surrounding how effective immunisation would be at preventing vulnerable individuals from falling ill.
The virologist also called for the return of masking at ‘crowded indoor spaces’ and areas that are ‘poorly ventilated.’
Professor Denis Kinane, an immunologist who founded Covid testing firm Cignpost Diagnostic, also raised concerns about the lack of free testing in the UK.
‘While cases are currently on their way up, we do not yet know the full extent of what is coming in autumn and winter,’ he said.
‘However, with mass-participation events like the football World Cup taking place in November, international travel growing rapidly, differing vaccination levels across the world, and with most countries having relaxed entry requirements, a rise in cases and emergence of newer variants cannot be ruled out.’
The experts’ concerns come as NHS statistics released Friday showed a 48 per cent weekly uptick in the number of infected patients in England needing treatment.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS), which tracks the size of the country’s outbreak, estimates cases have risen 12 per cent over the space of three days, suggesting pressure on hospitals is nowhere close to peaking.
Roughly 860,000 people in England are thought to be carrying Covid.
The report marks the first sustained rise since mid-July, when the summer wave peaked and ministers faced calls to bring back pandemic-era restrictions.
Hospitals have been overwhelmed all summer. Care backlogs have amassed to record highs, patients have been killed by ambulance delays and thousands forced to queue 12-plus hours in swamped A&E units.
The never-ending crisis, largely fueled by a lack of staff, has already forced one NHS trust in Nottinghamshire to start cancelling routine operations. Rationing care is the only way to ensure critically-ill patients get urgent care, bosses said.
Leaders fear the situation will only worsen as routine winter pressures begin to bite, with Covid and flu expected to combine to create a ‘twindemic’.
Dr Mary Ramsay, director of public health programmes at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), told the Independent the data is ‘clear now that we are seeing an increase’ in levels of Covid.’
‘Cases have started to climb and hospitalisations are increasing in the oldest age groups,’ she said. ‘In the coming weeks, we expect a double threat of low immunity and widely circulating flu and Covid-19, creating an unpredictable winter and additional pressure on health services.’
However, Sarah Crofts, the ONS deputy director for the Covid-19 infection survey, hit back, alleging its ‘too early to identify whether this is the start of a new wave’.
The infection data also shows cases increased in all parts of the country, although the ONS noted that the trend in East Midlands and the South West was unclear. The West Midlands, North East and Yorkshire and the Humber logged the highest infection rates
The prevalence of the virus increased among all ages, with rates being highest among the over-50s and 16 to 49-year-olds
Concerns about the potential new wave also comes just weeks after the British Medical Journal (BMJ) was accused of giving hardline Covid scientists too much clout and risking being one-sided with its ‘Covid inquiry’.
The BMJ in early September launched a multi-part series delving into the Government’s handling of the pandemic. Editors pledged articles would analyse both the successes and failures.
Yet so far, almost all the published pieces have leaned heavily on members of a left-wing group of experts called Independent SAGE, which has repeatedly criticised No10 for ditching restrictions too early.
The self-appointed panel famously lobbied for a Christmas lockdown last year and called for mask mandates to be brought back during April’s Omicron resurgence — despite both waves fizzling out naturally without crippling the NHS.
Influential members of Independent SAGE, which include an active Communist party member nicknamed ‘Stalin’s nanny’, have also previously likened children getting Covid to child abuse.
The BMJ, a 180-year-old publication, defended its decision to feature the group so heavily, despite pleas from top experts to widen its net and end its dependence on ‘similarly-minded’ voices.
Scientific arguments on how best to deal with Covid have drastically changed since the start of the pandemic in early 2020, with vaccines blunting the threat of the virus by morphing it into something that closer resembles flu — a seasonal virus the country lives with every year.
Professor Karol Sikora, a world-renowned oncologist and one of the first to publicly warn of the collateral effects of lockdowns, said there was a risk of the BMJ presenting too much from one side of the debate.
‘Denying lockdown harms is futile and regardless of whether you agreed with every restriction, the vast damage is undeniable,’ he told MailOnline.
‘We need a comprehensive discussion on what went right and what went wrong.
‘Investigations conducted by participants purely from one side of the debate will achieve very little’.