Britain’s Covid outbreak may be rebounding because Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has pushed the virus out of the headlines, scientists say.
Infections have been on the rise in the UK for a week straight, with the country now averaging 50,000 cases per day compared to around 35,000 on Freedom Day in late February. Hospitalisations have also been rising for the past seven days and in the South West of England have now eclipsed levels at the height of the Omicron wave.
But Covid — which has dominated the news cycle for almost two years — has been dwarfed by the war in Ukraine, which has gripped the world and produced harrowing images of civilian casualties on a daily basis.
The crisis is causing Britons to act ‘less carefully… now the virus is off the news essentially’, according to Professor Gary McLean, an immunologist at London Metropolitan University.
But he added that Ukraine was just one piece of the puzzle. ‘It’s almost like a perfect storm of several things has resulted in reduced care even though the virus is circulating at still high levels and immunity is slowly waning,’ he told MailOnline.
Government adviser Professor Stephen Reicher, a behavioural scientist on SAGE, said the Ukraine crisis was giving the impression Covid had become ‘yesterday’s news’.
But he warned people were already changing their behaviour before Russia’s invasion, as No10’s rhetoric pivoted and ministers began stressing that we need to learn to live with Covid.
Cases are also thought to be rising due to a mix of restrictions being lifted and the rise of a more infectious sub-variant of Omicron known as BA.2, which is now the UK’s dominant strain.
The scientists stressed the Covid situation in the UK pales in comparison to what people were facing in Ukraine, where a maternity hospital in Mariupol was bombed yesterday, killing three people, including a six-year-old girl.
A total of 516 Ukrainian civilians had been killed in the war so far, 37 of whom were children, according to the latest statistics verified by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). A further 908 people, including 50 children, have been hospitalised, according to the same stats.
Covid cases are slowly rising in all regions of England. Hospitalisations have also been rising for the past seven days and in the South West of England have now eclipsed levels at the height of the Omicron wave
Ukrainian emergency employees and volunteers carry an injured pregnant woman from a maternity hospital that was damaged by shelling in Mariupol on Wednesday
A woman injured in Russian shelling of Mariupol’s maternity hospital stands outside wrapped in a blanket amid the carnage
The above graph from the ZOE Covid symptom study shows that infections in the UK ticked up 20 per cent last week compared to the previous seven-day spell. Around 175,000 people are now catching the virus every day on average
The King’s College London scientists, who run the study, found cases were ticking up in every age group but particularly among the under-35s
Britain’s daily Covid cases began rising officially last Wednesday, according to Government dashboard data, bringing an end to a month of falling infections.
They have risen week-on-week on every day since, with the seven-day average now up to 49,400 cases a day — compared to 35,700 on February 25.
That was the day after Ukraine was invaded and England lifted all Covid restrictions on Freedom Day, which saw the end of compulsory self-isolation for Covid cases, face masks and contact tracing.
Daily Covid hospitalisations are also up almost 10 per cent in a week across the UK, Government dashboard data shows, with the average now around 1,200 admissions a day.
UK’s daily Covid cases jump by another 50 PER CENT in a week
Britain’s Covid resurgence continued yesterday, according to official data that showed cases, hospitalisations and deaths were all up for the third day in a row.
Government dashboard data shows there were 67,159 new positive tests recorded, 52.6 per cent more than last Wednesday’s figure of 44,017.
Deaths within 28 days of a confirmed coronavirus case also increased to 123, up 66.2 per cent on the 74 recorded last week.
And hospital admissions increased to 1,192 on March 5, the latest date UK-wide data is available for. It was 14.6 per cent on the previous week.
It was the third time all three metrics increased week-on-week in a row, after a two-day hiatus in data over the weekend.
Cases have been increasing across Britain for the last seven days, in an apparent rebound after all restrictions were lifted in England on Freedom Day at the end of February.
Hospitalisations in the South West are now at higher levels than at the peak of the Omicron wave, with experts insisting it is too early to worry but also claiming the increases could be driven by waning booster immunity.
But dashboard data also suggests the fall in Covid testing may be ticking up again, which could also be a factor behind the increase in recorded cases.
The latest findings from the REACT-1 study, which randomly tests 100,000 people, found that cases are rising in people over the age of 55 once more, which may explain the uptick in hospital admissions.
Separate figures from the country’s biggest symptom-tracking study published today suggested cases rose 20 per cent last week compared to the previous seven-day spell, with 175,000 people now falling the virus every day. They rose in all age groups, particularly the under-35s.
Experts told MailOnline cases were probably rising due to Freedom Day itself and the rise of the BA.2 subvariant — but the Ukraine war may also be having an influence.
Like the rest of the world, Britain’s newspapers, websites and television channels have been flooded with coverage of the war for the past fortnight.
Professor Reicher told MailOnline: ‘The impression is given that Covid is yesterday’s news.’
The expert — who has been an outspoken critic of the Government’s Covid response, despite being on its advisory committee — added: ‘But that started before the war, the notion that it was all over, and the referring [by ministers] to the pandemic in the past tense even informally.’
Professor Reicher claims the recent rise in Covid cases was likely down to the end of the final restrictions forcing people to take more risks.
‘Much of the problem now has much less to do with people choosing to be less safety-conscious, but being forced to,’ he said.
‘Many companies are telling employees to come into work even if testing positive (but non-symptomatic).’
Government scientists are struggling to work out why admissions seem to be rising in line with hospital admissions. Normally, it takes two to three weeks for an uptick in cases to translate into more hospitalisations.
A Whitehall source told The Times ministers were not ‘overly worried’ by the increase, although they were keeping an eye on it.
Similarly, NHS sources said they hope the current rise is a blip. One senior source told the newspaper: ‘We are not that concerned, but we are keeping an eye on it.’
Plans are being set out for the NHS to start rolling out fourth doses to the over-75s and the most vulnerable from March 21 to top-up immunity levels.
The original Omicron wave never overwhelmed the NHS, despite admissions hitting almost 2,500 a day. Around half of Covid inpatients in English hospitals were not primarily sick with the virus and were classed as ‘incidental cases’, and intensive care rates stayed flat.
Experts credited it to a mixture of Omicron and BA.2’s mildness and the UK’s wall of vaccine-induced and natural immunity.
Professor Gary McLean (left), an immunologist at London Metropolitan University, told MailOnline the Ukraine crisis was leading to Britons acting ‘less carefully’. Professor Stephen Reicher (right), a behavioural scientist at the University of St Andrews, said it had made Covid appear to be ‘yesterday’s news’
The above graph is from Imperial College London’s REACT-1 study. It shows cases appeared to tick up at the end of February and start of March, about the same time they were also increasing in the daily figures
Experts have warned the war will likely trigger a spike in Covid cases in Ukraine itself and neighbouring countries offering salvation to refugees.
Dr Richard Horton, who edits the prestigious Lancet journal, warns Ukraine has just a third of its population double-jabbed, making a flare-up in infections likely. He added that the decimation of health services by Russian shelling would make it worse.
But he said these would be nearly impossible to measure because surveillance systems for the virus have been disrupted by the conflict.
Around a third of jabs administered were the Chinese vaccine as well, which has been shown to offer little protection against the Omicron variant.
More than 2million people have already fled the war-torn country, often crowding together in trains, buses and at border crossings — places where the virus finds it easier to spread.
In the UK, there are no strong signs yet in official data that behaviours and attitudes towards Covid have changed.
The Office for National Statistics’ Opinions and Lifestyles survey estimated that by Freedom Day, 83 per cent of Britons were still wearing face masks, compared to 88 per cent at the middle of the month.
Some 15 per cent of people also said they were still working from home compared to 27 per cent in the previous week.