Covid-19 patient numbers and deaths in the UK remain “stubbornly high” with “a lot of Covid about”, experts have warned – but getting unvaccinated adults to accept the jab could help flatten the third wave of the virus ahead of this winter.
Around one in ten people aged 16 and over have still not received any doses of Covid-19 vaccine, with estimates ranging from 8% in Scotland to 12% in Northern Ireland, official figures show.
The third wave of coronavirus began in the UK at the end of May, driven by the more transmissible Delta variant of the virus and the easing of lockdown restrictions across the country.
Infection levels and the number of new cases have both jumped in recent months, but although patient numbers and deaths have also increased, neither has yet matched the levels seen at the peak of the second wave last winter.
The number of new cases of Covid-19 recorded each day in the UK has averaged between 30,000 and 40,000 for much of the past month, and has not dropped below 25,000 a day since the start of July.
At the peak of the second wave in January, cases were averaging more than 61,000 a day, however.
The rate of new cases in the UK currently stands at 357.5 per 100,000 people, up slightly week-on-week from 312.9 – but this masks different trends across the country.
All regions of England are currently reporting a rise in the case rates, while Wales has seen its rate hit a record high in the past few days, according to analysis by the PA news agency.
By contrast, rates for Scotland and Northern Ireland are now falling, after peaking at or near record levels in recent weeks.
Though each UK nation has experienced a slightly different “shape” of the third wave, the latest figures “show that there is still a lot of Covid about”, according to Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading.
“We have been bumping along at a similar rate for the past few weeks, with infections currently being driven by secondary school-aged children.”
There is “good news” in the data for infection rates among 20 to 29-year-olds, however.
“A few months ago, this age group was driving surging transmission rates,” Dr Clarke said.
“Now they have one of the lowest rates of all age groups, similar to retirees. This seems likely due to the success of vaccination reducing infections in this age group, who are increasingly protected.”
– Patients and deaths
Vaccines have also played a key role in keeping Covid-19 patient numbers and deaths during the third wave below levels seen during the second wave.
So far, the number of patients in hospital with Covid-19 in the third wave has never risen higher than around a fifth of levels reached at the peak of the second wave.
Some 6853 patients were in hospital on September 29, the most recent date for which figures are available.
This is down from 8467 on September 13, and is well below the second-wave peak of 39,254, which was reached on January 18.
Even in Scotland, which has seen record daily numbers of new cases of coronavirus during the third wave, patient levels have never exceeded those seen during the second wave.
Vaccines have been shown to reduce the number of people whose Covid-19 symptoms are serious enough to require hospital care.
In England alone, the vaccine rollout is estimated by Public Health England to have prevented 261,500 hospital admissions among people aged 45 and over.
But even though patient numbers have dropped slightly in recently weeks, they are still at a level that is “stubbornly high”, and need to “fall significantly before pressure on the NHS starts to build up during the winter”, according to Mark Woolhouse, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh.
Meanwhile, the number of Covid-19 deaths, though also well below figures seen during the second wave, have averaged more than 100 a day for the past month.
A total of 4127 deaths were reported in September of people who died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19, compared with 2883 in August, 1478 in July and just 358 in June.
More than 1000 deaths were being reported a day at the peak of the second wave in January – and again it is the vaccine rollout that has helped avoid a repeat of such numbers in the third wave, with an estimated 127,500 deaths prevented in England so far.
“Although only a small minority of adults remain unvaccinated, they are greatly over-represented among hospital cases and deaths,” Professor Woolhouse said.
“The most obvious and direct way to reduce both the risk to individuals and the burden on the NHS as a whole is a concerted effort to encourage unvaccinated adults to get vaccinated. It is worrying that vaccination coverage in the UK is now below that of some other European countries.”
The UK has delivered both doses of vaccine to nearly 67% of its total population, behind the likes of Belgium (72%), Ireland (73%), Spain (78%) and Portugal (85%).
Professor Woolhouse said the vaccination programme is continuing to have a significant impact on the rate of transmission of coronavirus, pointing to the example of Scotland which is now seeing a steady drop in cases, the “first time there has been a sustained fall in the absence of a lockdown” and which is “consistent with an impact of herd immunity”.
But one way to reduce transmission rates even faster is to increase the use of home testing, he added.
“Roughly a quarter of cases are now first detected by home testing, showing both that it works and that there is the potential to do more. Vaccination and regular testing are the key tools that will enable us to resume normal activities safely.”