THE UK is at the “start of a Covid epidemic in the young”, according to data, and hotspots threaten the lockdown lifting on June 21.
As millions of people under 30 wait for their jab, infections are spreading rapidly, according to new data.
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Around 4,608 people are estimated to be catching symptomatic coronavirus each day in the UK – up from 2,550 a week ago.
The data, from the weekly ZOE COVID Study, also suggests one in every 1,090 people are currently sick with the virus.
But the picture is different by age group, with 10 times more cases in the under 40s than in the over 60s.
Around 145 people in their 20s per 100,000 currently have Covid, the highest of any age band.
Those in their 30s and teens are close behind, and compare with just 30 cases per 100,000 in those in their 50s.
Prof Tim Spector, a genetic epidemiologist at King’s College London who leads the ZOE study, said: “The data highlights that the increase is happening in the younger age groups, suggesting the start of an epidemic in the young.
“We can’t be too complacent, and we are monitoring things closely.”
Public Health England data published today also showed the biggest increase in cases in the week to May 30 was among those aged between 10 and 29 years old.
Dr Mike Gent, Incident Director for the COVID-19 response at Public Health England, said: “We are seeing some increases in case rates once again, particularly in younger age groups who are not yet being vaccinated and are having regular testing.
“This is to be expected as the country opens up and people start to socialise more together.
“But it provides a stark reminder that we must all follow hands, face, space, fresh air and importantly get vaccinated when it’s offered.”
Those 10 to 19 years old had a case rate of 72.3 per 100,000 population compared to the 5 per 100,000 in those aged 70 and above.
Prof Spector said although cases are rising, “it’s very much a regional issue”.
“The North West of England and Scotland are the two regions with the highest prevalence, with rates higher than in some parts of Europe”, he said.
One in 428 people in the North West have Covid at present, according to the ZOE data, while in Scotland the figure is one in 519.
Both areas have been harder hit with the Delta variant, which was first detected in India.
By comparison, the South East has only one in 4,506 people sick with Covid.
Prof Spector said on Twitter the “Delta variant has taken hold” of hotspots but it is not becoming a widespread problem.
However, he suggested he now believes the June 21 relaxation of rules should be delayed – backing calls from other scientists.
It’s a U-turn on the professor’s usual optimism about the next stage of unlocking, tweeting on Tuesday that “vaccines are working” to prevent the Delta variant becoming widespread.
On May 28 he tweeted that there was “no need to panic” about increasing cases because the overall rate was “so low”.
But amid new data, Prof Spector said today: “The ending of lockdown is on everyone’s minds and given the current situation, I believe we should continue to soften restrictions but not lift them all just yet.
“The government said it would use data, not dates, to make key decisions.
“It’s sensible to continue measures like working from home as transmission rates are very high in offices, not to mention the impact of increased use of public transport.”
Too early to say
Ministers are gearing up to make a final decision on June 21, dubbed “Freedom Day”, on June 14.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock has said it remains “too early” to say what that decision will be.
Speaking ahead of a G7 health ministers’ meeting, he told reporters today: “It’s too early to say what the decision will be about step four of the road map, which is scheduled to be no earlier than June 21.
“Of course I look at those data every day, we publish them every day, the case numbers matter but what really matters is how that translates into the number of people going to hospital, the number of people sadly dying.
“The vaccine breaks that link – the question is how much the link has yet been broken because the majority of people who ended up in hospital are not fully vaccinated.
“That’s a good sign if you like because it means that the vaccine is clearly protecting people from ending up in hospital but it also demonstrates that we need to keep going with this vaccine programme.”
Boris Johnson has insisted there is “nothing in the data at the moment” to prevent lifting lockdown on June 21.
But he admitted “the data is just still ambiguous”.
He also said more information needs to be gathered on whether vaccines will hold back hospitalisations and deaths – even if cases go up.
The PM said there was “no question” infections were on the rise, but: “We always knew that was going to happen, don’t forget, we always said that the unlocking steps that we’ve taken would lead to increases in infection.”
Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that current figures “don’t look too intimidating”.
But he said: “I think the gain now is, can we get more people vaccinated down into younger, younger age groups to try and stop more transmission.”
People in their 30s are currently being invited for their jabs in England, while the programme is reaching younger people elsewhere in the UK.
What’s in the data?
Deaths continue to be at an extremely low level, with May 30 the first day in the pandemic where zero deaths occurred.
As well as this, the vaccination programme has reached a new milestone – 75 per cent of UK adults have now had their first coronavirus jab, and half have had two.
But on the flip side, cases are going up and there are early signs hospitalisations are, too.
Public Health England data shows that of the 315 local areas in England, 213 (68 per cent) recorded rising case rates in a week.
Around 3,000 people are being diagnosed with Covid each day, the Government dashboard shows, up from a low of 1,800 in April.
An extra 24 people are being admitted to hospitals each day in the UK compared to the start of May.
The weekly figure of 869 is up by 17.1 per cent since the week prior.