COVID-19 cases were rising among the over-55s in England, a study found on Thursday, with increased social contact, waning of booster protection and a more contagious subvariant of Omicron possibly driving an increase in hospitalisations.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson in February lifted the last coronavirus restrictions in England and abolished a legal requirement to self-isolate after testing positive for the virus.
Johnson took those steps after Omicron peaked at the start of the year without causing a wave of hospitalisations and deaths to overwhelm the health service, which he attributed to the booster programme and Omicron’s lower severity.
The Imperial College London REACT study, conducted from Feb. 8 to March 1, found that COVID-19 prevalence was 2.88%, compared to 4.41% in January.
But while prevalence fell in under-17s and 18-54-year-olds during February, for those 55 and older, it was estimated to have increased over the month.
Britain has also seen a rise in hospital admissions of patients with COVID-19 since the last week of February, reversing a steadily declining trend since the start of the year.
“I think the timing does fit with there being more mixing, higher infections, possible waning and then that feeding through into hospitalisations,” Imperial epidemiologist Paul Elliott told reporters.
Britain has announced a spring booster will be offered to over-75s and some other vulnerable groups as a precaution in case waning immunity from the initial booster lowers protection against severe disease. Read full story
The Imperial study also found that the Omicron subvariant BA.2 was taking over from the previously dominant BA.1.
“BA.2 seems to be more transmissible… it may prolong the Omicron wave of the pandemic,” Elliott said.
Epidemiologists have highlighted the importance of prevalence surveys like the REACT study for monitoring the virus in light of government plans to phase out free mass testing.
Elliott said that the study, funded by the health ministry, would have one more round in March, but did not have funding to continue for longer.
A separate Office for National Statistics survey will be maintained in a reduced form, PM Johnson has said. Read full story