A rise in Covid infections in the over-55s could see an increased number of hospitalisations and deaths in the coming weeks, experts have warned.
Imperial College London’s latest React-1 study found that while infections appeared to be slowing down or plateauing in most younger age groups in England, they were rising in over-55s, with no clear sign of when they will peak.
According to their latest data, the average prevalence of Covid-19 across England stood at 6.4%, based on swabs collected between 9 and 31 March from a random sample of nearly 100,000 people. “That’s by far the highest we’ve seen at any time since [the study began] in May 2020,” said Prof Paul Elliott, who led the research.
The south-west had the highest infection rate at 8.13%, and West Midlands the lowest at 5.28%, with reliable increases in infections observed in all English regions apart from London.
Among those aged 55 and over, the estimated prevalence on 31 March stood at 8.31%. “This is around 20 times higher than the average for that group across the whole period from May 2020 through to March 2022, so these are absolutely unprecedentedly high levels,” Elliott said.
“Obviously there’s the vaccination programme, which has been hugely important in protecting us as a population, but if you see more infection, you would generally expect to see more severe outcomes [such as hospitalisations and deaths],” added Prof Christl Donnelly at Imperial College London, who was also involved in the study.
“We don’t yet know when we’ll see a peak in the over-55 age group, and because those people are at higher risk of severe outcomes that is a particular worry.”
The team also identified eight cases involving “recombinant” forms of the coronavirus, which can occur when a person is infected with two variants at once, including five of the XE variant, a combination of Omicron BA.1 and BA.2. Separate data has suggested this is spreading about 10% faster than BA.2 in the UK, with 637 cases identified as of 22 March.
The figures came as the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that Covid-related deaths in England have jumped to their highest level since mid-February.
There were 780 deaths where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate in the seven days leading up to 25 March – up 14% on the previous week. This increase follows several weeks where deaths appeared to have levelled off.
Coronavirus infections have been rising across the UK since early March, driven by the Omicron BA.2 variant. Prevalence of the virus is currently at a record high, with ONS figures suggesting approximately 4.9 million people had Covid in the week to 26 March. This increase may now be having an impact on the number of deaths, which typically lag behind infections by several weeks.
The death toll is the highest since 18 February when 863 deaths were recorded – although this is still lower than at the peak of the first Omicron wave when 1,484 deaths were registered in England and Wales in the week to 21 January. It is also well below the 8,433 deaths registered at the peak of the second wave of coronavirus in the week to 29 January 2021.
In total 190,053 deaths have now occurred in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate, according to the ONS. The number of people in hospital in the UK with coronavirus is close to the total reached at the start of this year but is still far below levels recorded in early 2021.
This relatively low number of deaths and hospitalisations largely reflects the success of the vaccination programme – in particular the rollout of booster doses at the end of 2021. A fourth “spring booster” dose of vaccine is being offered to people aged 75 and over, care home residents and those aged 12 and over with weakened immune systems.
Wednesday’s React-1 figures are the last that will be published by the study group, as the government has now axed funding for the project. Throughout the pandemic, it has played a key role in tracking the spread of Covid-19 infections in the community, alongside the ONS study, which will continue.
Elliott said he was “extremely proud” of what the study had achieved, providing “very rapid, real-time information that we endeavoured to report very quickly to the public, to the press, as well as to the government.
“There will be a bit of a loss. But I’m very hopeful that with the [ONS study] continuing we will still be ahead of other countries in terms of population level surveillance.”