As the UK faces a new wave of Covid, data shows around one in five people aged 75 years and over have not received a vaccine within the past six months, 'putting them more at risk of severe disease,' health experts have warned.
Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 has become dominant in the UK and is 'driving increase in infections,' the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has explained.
Epidemiological analysis presented at the UKHSA's Covid-19 variant technical briefing on Friday shows that Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 now make up more than half of new Covid-19 cases in England, accounting for approximately 22% and 39% of cases, respectively.
Omicron BA.4 and Omicron BA.5 were designated as variants of concern on 18 May on the basis of an apparent growth advantage over the previously-dominant Omicron BA.2 variant.
'There is currently no evidence that Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 cause more severe illness than previous variants,' the UKHSA said. 'So far, vaccination means that the rise in cases is not translating to a rise in severe illness and deaths.'
However, the government agency warned: 'Our data also shows that 17.5 per cent of people aged 75 years and over have not had a vaccine within the past six months, putting them more at risk of severe disease. We urge these people in particular to get up-to-date.'
A report from the Office of National Statistics, published on Friday, said 1 in 40 people in England were likely infected (2.5% of the population); 1 in 45 in Wales (2.25%); 1 in 30 in Northern Ireland (3.26%); and 1 in 20 (4.76%) in Scotland.
The Government also adjusted the R range for England to 1.1 to 1.4 on Friday, with the growth rate range for Covid infection in England estimated as +2% to +5% per day.
The UKHSA’s latest analysis suggests that Omicron BA.5 is growing 35.1% faster than Omicron BA.2, while Omicron BA.4 is growing approximately 19.1% faster. This suggests that BA.5 is likely to become the dominant Covid-19 variant in the UK.
UKHSA scientists are urging anyone who has not had all the vaccines they are eligible for to make sure that they get them as soon as possible.
Professor Susan Hopkins, chief medical advisor at UKHSA, said: 'It is clear that the increasing prevalence of Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 are significantly increasing the case numbers we have observed in recent weeks. We have seen a rise in hospital admissions in line with community infections, but vaccinations are continuing to keep ICU admissions and deaths at low levels.
'As prevalence increases, it’s more important than ever that we all remain alert, take precautions, and ensure that we’re up to date with Covid-19 vaccinations, which remain our best form of defence against the virus. It’s not too late to catch up if you’ve missed boosters, or even first doses, so please take your recommended vaccines.'
Vaccinologist Sarah Gilbert, who co-developed the AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, told national press that 'the virus has been too quick,' in an interview published on 30 June.
'If a new sequence is thought to be becoming dominant, our problem is that making a new version of the vaccine takes time and has to be tested and approved,' she explained. 'What’s been happening, as we go through one wave after another, is that the virus has been too quick.
'Regulators cannot approve a vaccine unless they can see the clinical data, then you have to scale up manufacturing to produce the vaccine in quantity.
'Developers are still using the original vaccines, which are supplying good protection against the disease.'
In response to the new wave of Covid, the Welsh Government announced on Friday that it will extend access to free lateral flow tests for people with Covid symptoms for another month - until 31 July. The English public lost access to free Covid testing from 1 April.
Director of the Welsh NHS Confederation Darren Hughes said: ‘NHS leaders across Wales welcome the extension of access to free LFD testing for those with Covid symptoms. This will enable us to better protect staff and patients as the NHS continues its recovery efforts to treat people as soon as possible.'
With the NHS already ‘reporting increasing staff absences due to Covid’, ‘we need to do everything we can, within reason, to stem transmission of the virus’, he added.
‘It’s important we continue to wear masks in healthcare settings and remain vigilant at a time when the NHS is doing everything it can to cope with high levels of incoming demand and the huge backlog of planned care.’
The UKHSA advised: 'If you have any symptoms of a respiratory infection, and a high temperature or feel unwell, try to stay at home or away from others – especially those who are elderly or vulnerable.'
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