A recent rise in death rates has prompted a warning that COVID is “starting to penetrate into older groups”.
England’s deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan Van-Tam, warned that while case rates have fallen, a rise in deaths and hospital admissions was “of concern to scientists”.
The number of deaths involving coronavirus registered each week in England and Wales has risen for the second week in a row, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said on Tuesday.
A total of 792 deaths registered in the week ending 22 October mentioned COVID on the death certificate – up 11% on the previous week, and follows a 7% rise a week earlier.
Reflecting on the figures and the recent drive for booster jabs, Van-Tam told BBC Breakfast: “My worry is that the deaths are increasing and that shows that the infection is now starting to penetrate into those older age groups.
“And that’s why the really key thing is that if you are called for your booster, if you are called for your flu vaccine, please go and get them – this could be really very important this winter, it is not the time to be complacent.”
Asked whether the UK is at “half-time in the game” in terms of the pandemic, Van-Tam said that "we’re kind of half-time in extra time", adding: "I think the final whistle in terms of – I can’t predict it – but my personal view is that we’ve got a few more months to run, and I think we’ll be in a much calmer set of waters by spring.
Van-Tam said the UK still has “very high” rates of COVID “and we are running quite hot”.
He added: “It’s of concern to scientists that we are running this hot this early in the autumn season.
“And so, from that perspective, I’m afraid it’s caution, followed by caution, and we need to watch these data very carefully indeed over the next days and weeks.”
While the government has urged all over-50s to come forward for their booster jab, research by The i has suggested that it will take another three months to complete the programme in England if it continues at the current rate.
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The paper said, going by NHS data that shows 230,000 people a day are having their booster, it would take until the start of February for the third dose to be given to all eligible people.
Meanwhile, John Roberts, from the Institute and Faculty of Actuaries, said this week that six million people who are eligible for a COVID booster jab in England have not yet had one.
So far, 6,826,159 people have had a booster vaccine in England since the rollout began on 16 September.
But Roberts warned the increase in the number of third doses given out has stalled in recent days, meaning booster coverage for the eligible priority groups will not be complete until mid-January, by his estimation.
Van-Tam this morning urged people to get their booster jabs “as soon as possible”, in the wake of the latest projections.
He said: “What we need, to be in the best position to get through this winter, is for people who are vulnerable who are eligible for boosters – that’s really the over-50s and people under 50 with high-risk conditions – we need them to get their immunity levels as high as possible so that we go into the winter with the best overall level of protection for the population and for individuals.”
Asked about the progress of the booster campaign, Van-Tam said it is “picking up considerable momentum”.
While COVID deaths have risen in recent weeks, deaths are still far below levels seen during the winter.
There were 8,433 deaths involving COVID registered in England and Wales in the week to 29 January, at the peak of the second wave of the virus.
By contrast, the weekly total has been between 600 and 900 for the last two months.
The relatively low number of deaths in the third wave so far, when compared with the second wave of the virus, reflects the success of the rollout of coronavirus vaccines across the country.
Vaccinations in England are estimated to have prevented 127,500 deaths up to 24 September, according to research by Cambridge University and the UK Health Security Agency.
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