Indian variant: Covid cases low but creeping up

Coronavirus cases in the UK remain low, but there are signs of a small increase, Office for National Statistics (ONS) figures suggest.

The ONS regularly swabs a random sample of the population to estimate levels of the virus, even in people who don’t have symptoms or don’t get tested.

Almost half of the infections picked up look like they are probably caused by the variant first identified in India.

But national data suggests it is still confined to a handful of areas.

An estimated 60,000 people in the UK were infected with coronavirus in the week leading up to 22 May, an increase of roughly 10% from 54,000 people the previous week.

That equates to 0.09% of the population – or one in 1,080 people.

So there is still not a lot of Covid around compared with the winter peak.

But there have been signs of increases in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland in the previous fortnight. In Wales, cases remain stable.


charting showing a small uptick in UK cases


So far, this rise across the UK is small – but data suggests there are larger rises concentrated in just a few local authorities.

The ONS data is not broken down by local authority, since they don’t swab enough people in each area to give accurate estimates. So it’s good for spotting national trends, but less good at picking up local variation.

While the overall increases are small, this hides big spikes in areas with lots of cases of the Indian variant, including Bolton, Blackburn and Bedford.


Indian variant causing local spikes but yet to make a big impact on whole UK


These national figures might partly be skewed by surge testing in areas of concern, which then picks up more cases.

Public Health England data, including infections found through surge testing, suggests more than half of new cases are the B.1.617.2 variant found in India.

But the ONS data – which is not influenced by changes in testing behaviour in the same way – puts it at a little under a half.

Some of those cases could be other variants (the ONS looks for how many test positive for a particular gene mutation found in the India, South Africa and Brazil variants but not in the Kent variant). But we can assume from other genetic testing for variants that it’s likely to be mostly the India variant, since it’s far more common than the others currently in the UK.


Map showing concentration of Indian variant cases in hotspots


The difference this time – compared with previous waves – is the vaccine, which should be breaking the link between infection and illness.

After two doses, the jabs are roughly as effective against the India variant as they are against the Kent variant.

In Bolton – which has the highest case numbers in the UK – the vast majority of hospital patients are not fully vaccinated and most cases are in people who are not, or who only just became eligible to have the jab.

Nationally, the number of patients in hospital has continued falling.

But in the North West, which is particularly affected by the B.1.617.2 variant, hospital admissions are starting to go up.


north west: hospital admissions starting to tick back up but are still well below peak


Since cases in the UK as a whole have only just started to creep up, there may be a bigger rise in admissions to follow – there is always a lag before an infection translates to an illness which is severe enough to send someone to hospital.

That’s why a five-week gap was left between each step of easing lockdown restrictions, to give enough time for those effects to be fully seen.

With this recent rise in cases, the next week or two will be crucial in seeing whether and by how much it pushes up the numbers of hospital admissions and deaths.

These figures will be key factors when government ministers decide whether the 21 June relaxations can go ahead.

Graphics by Daniel Dunford and the Visual and Data Journalism Team

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