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Covid case rates reach highest ever level in England as experts warn of an increase in deaths

Covid cases are increasing among the oldest age groups who are most likely to suffer severe illness from coronavirus

Covid case rates have reached their highest ever level in England, with experts warning of an increase in hospitalisations and deaths.

Two variants of Omicron - the BA.1 and BA.2 - caused twin peaks in the pandemic, the first in January and the second in March, according to data from Imperial College London’s latest React-1 study.

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ovid case rates have reached their highest ever level in England (Photo: Getty Images)

Infections rising among over 55s

The study suggests that 6.37% of people in England had coronavirus between 8 and 31 March - the highest level recorded in the pandemic - compared to just 4.41% in January.

Data suggests that Covid cases are increasing among the oldest age groups, who are most likely to suffer severe illness due to coronavirus.

Professor Christl Donnelly, Jameel Institute, Imperial College London, and Department of Statistics, University of Oxford, said: “It’s still the case that if you see more infection, you would expect, even if it’s a very small proportion of those, to see more of the severe outcomes.

“So we don’t yet know when we’ll see a peak in the oldest age group – the 55 plus – and because those people are at higher risk of severe outcomes, that is a particular worry.

“It is possible if the prevalence continues to go up, that you will see further increases in the severe outcome rates.”

Responding to the findings, Dr Layla McCay, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, added: “We are now seeing record numbers of people currently infected with Covid, and it’s particularly concerning to note the unprecedented and still rising levels in older people.

“Nearly 20,000 people are now in hospital with Covid in England and the NHS, and its exhausted staff are once again really struggling to cope with increasing admissions and bed occupancy.

“NHS leaders and their teams are increasing their Covid services and reopening coronavirus wards, but the government must take heed, combined with chronic staff shortages, and a waiting list backlog that now tops 6.1 million, we really need a realistic conversation about the current situation in the health service.”

Experts also warned that hospital admissions in England have also been rising due to the high rates of infection, particularly among the elderly.

The study, which has been published as a preprint, said: “We observed Omicron ‘twin peaks’ as BA.1 replaced Delta and BA.2 replaced BA.1, while at the same time, society opened up with all legal restrictions related to Covid-19 in England lifted as part of its ‘Living with Covid-19’ strategy.

“Nonetheless there are worrying signs of increasing hospitalisations and deaths due to Covid-19 in England during March 2022, which may reflect the very high and increasing rates of infection, particularly in older people.

“These trends in England may presage what might be expected in the USA and other countries as BA.2 takes hold as the predominant variant worldwide.”

Continued Covid surveillance needed

Despite a huge rise in infections in March, the government pressed ahead with plans to drop Covid restrictions, including rules on free regular testing.

Professor Paul Elliott, director of the React-1 programme, said it is "really important" there is ongoing surveillance to monitor severe outcomes from Covid and to keep track of new variants as they emerge.

The latest data from round 19 will be the last from the React study, which has been running since May 2020.

Professor Elliott said: “One thing we’ve learned and is very, very clear looking at that whole pattern over the 23 months, is things go along and then something happens.

“It is really important that there is continued surveillance looking for these new variants, and I believe that will be the case.

“As part of the ongoing surveillance of Sars-CoV-2 Covid-19 there is going to be a sequencing facility looking nationally at these variants and picking them up as they appear in the population.”