The UK has recorded nearly 50,000 new coronavirus infections, marking the largest daily rise since lockdown rules ended in England three months ago.
For the sixth consecutive day, more than 40,000 new cases of Covid-19 were reported, amounting to 49,156 new infections tallied on Monday.
Hours earlier, Boris Johnson’s official spokesperson said Downing Street was keeping a “very close watch” on the figures, but suggested levels of cases, hospitalisations and deaths were “still broadly in line with” government modelling, adding: “We always knew the coming months would be challenging”.
Despite intensifying talk of an early NHS winter crisis, No 10 insisted that “there is absolutely no plan to introduce Plan B currently” – referring to measures drawn up in the event of unsustainable pressure on the health service, including vaccine passports, mandatory face masks and work-from-home guidance.
Save for two days in July, daily cases have not exceeded 50,000 since January, when the emergence of the more infectious Delta variant led to an average of more than 1,000 deaths per day across that month.
Despite case numbers again soaring in the UK, experts say that widespread vaccination appears to have significantly compromised – but not broken – the link between infection and serious illness or death.
However, there is there is already “some evidence” that immunity against infection is beginning to wear off – and “probably some evidence” that protection against severe disease is waning to a lesser extent, Sage adviser Professor Andrew Hayward said on Monday.
“We shouldn't be complacent because there is still huge potential for the NHS to come under a lot of pressure and for there to be a lot of unnecessary deaths,” the epidemiologist told the BBC. “So we need to get the vaccination rates up and we need to be prepared potentially to think about other measures if things do get out of control.”
“I think it’s concerning that we’ve got very high rates of infection and higher rates of hospitalisation and mortality than many of our European counterparts,” he added.
A further 45 deaths were reported on Monday. Although, as of the previous day, the weekly average for fatalities sat at 124 per day.
Hospitalisations also appear to be increasing slightly, with 915 Covid patients admitted on Tuesday alone, according to the latest figures from the Department of Health and Social Care. As of Friday, there were nearly 7,100 coronavirus patients in hospital, 791 of whom were in ventilation beds.
The rise in new infections – which sat around the 30,000 mark in early October – comes amid warnings that a winter crisis in the NHS is already underway, months before peak levels of pressure are typically reached.
In some accident and emergency departments, a number of patients have waited nearly 50 hours for a bed, The Independent reported on Monday, with multiple hospitals declaring incidents.
More than 90 per cent of hospital beds in England were occupied on Friday. Anything above 85 per cent is seen as an unsafe level.
“The winter presents a significant challenge for the health service,” Dr Katherine Henderson, president of The Royal College of Emergency Medicine said, adding: “Staff are increasingly worried about the NHS’ ability to cope.
“The government need to recognise the potential crisis and support the health and care service as it tackles the challenges ahead.”
In addition to the prospect of waning immunity to Covid, health leaders are also concerned about a particularly deadly flu season, and the government has begun to offer coronavirus booster jabs to the over-50s as well as the annual flu vaccine.
But Office for National Statistics figures suggest that coronavirus infections are mostly being driven by rates among schoolchildren, with around one in 10 schoolchildren in Years 7 to 11 have the highest coronavirus positivity rate for any age group in England at the most recent estimation.
Despite this, vaccine uptake among 12 to 15-year-olds is as low as five per cent in some parts of England, with analysis by the Press Association news agency suggesting that 75 per cent of people in that age group are yet to receive a first dose in all but 15 local authorities.
In contrast, take-up among that age group is already above 50 per cent in Scotland, where young people can also receive doses of the jab in drop-in vaccination centres.
The prime minister’s spokesperson suggested said the programme in England was “under review”, and said number of factors could be behind the problems in England, potentially including “abhorrent” abuse and misinformation from protesters at school gates.
He added that the success of vaccines meant “we are able to be one of the most open economies in Europe, which is benefiting the public and indeed businesses as well”.
Additional reporting by PA
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