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Scientists optimistic that UK’s latest Covid wave has peaked

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Scientists and doctors are becoming more optimistic that the current wave of UK Covid-19 infections peaked in late October, in contrast to some other European countries where cases are rising fast.

On Friday, the weekly infection survey by the Office for National Statistics showed that the number of people in England, Wales and Scotland testing positive for coronavirus in the week to October 30 was very similar to the previous seven days.

“For the first time in several weeks, we are seeing a decrease in infections among secondary school-aged children in England, although rates do remain high,” said Sarah Crofts, the survey’s head of analytical outputs.

At the same time, the UK Health Security Agency announced an R number for England between 0.9 and 1.1 — meaning that, on average, every 10 people infected will infect between nine and 11 others. But the HSA noted that the estimate represented “the transmission of Covid-19 from two to three weeks ago, due to the time delay between someone being infected, developing symptoms, and needing healthcare”.

On Thursday, two other surveys — the Zoe app that tracks Covid symptoms and Imperial College’s React study — suggested that UK infections started to fall in late October. But the incidence remains very high, with the ONS estimating that 1.1m people in England are infected.

“It would be remiss to look at the slight stabilisation of cases in recent weeks as a sign the pandemic is easing,” Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association, told the Financial Times. “The government has repeatedly said that it would act if the NHS becomes overwhelmed. The reality is that we are not even at the peak of winter pressures and the system is already under extreme strain.”

Health authorities have expressed fears that a resurgence of influenza could combine with Covid to overwhelm hospitals this winter. Therefore, one reassuring finding from the HSA’s weekly surveillance report on Thursday is that “flu activity remains very low”.

The rolling weekly average of daily Covid cases in the UK peaked at about 47,000 on October 19 and is now below 40,000. Most of that decline has come among the young, who are much less susceptible to severe disease. Hospitalisation and death rates have not fallen. About 1,000 people a day are admitted to hospital with Covid.

Over the past week, 1,197 people have died within 28 days of a positive test. At the height of the pandemic in January, the daily average came close to 1,300 deaths.

Chart showing that although UK case rates have been falling recently, this has yet to translate into a decline in hospitalisations or deaths

According to the latest government figures, 34,029 new coronavirus infections were recorded across the UK on Friday, with the case rate now at 412.4 per 100,000 people. An additional 193 deaths within 28 days of a positive coronavirus test were also recorded.

There are signs of a decline in cases among people aged 80 and over, in what looks like a “booster effect” from the elderly having their third vaccine doses.

The government on Saturday announced that eligible members of the public will from next week be able to pre-book their Covid-19 booster jab appointment one month early, in an attempt to encourage uptake heading into the winter.

From November 8, the national booking system will allow individuals to book in their appointment five months after their second jab. Previously, booster jabs could only be booked six months after the second dose.

“Covid-19 vaccines are the best way to protect yourself and your family ahead of a challenging winter,” said Sajid Javid, health secretary. “This change to the booking system will make it as easy as possible for people to book their booster jabs.”

More than 9m people across the UK have already received their top-up jab, with the offer open to over 50s and frontline health and social care workers, alongside those aged over 16 who are severely vulnerable or live with someone who is.

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