Coronavirus deaths in the UK have risen to their highest daily level since early March, while cases are at their highest for almost three months.
The latest figures come as Downing Street said it is keeping a “very close eye” on increasing case rates and after a leading scientific advisor warned it is “critical” that the Covid-19 booster programme is accelerated.
On Tuesday, the Government said a further 223 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19, bringing the UK total to 138,852.
While the numbers are often higher on Tuesdays because of a lag in reporting deaths and cases over the weekend, this is the highest figure for daily reported deaths since March 9.
Meanwhile, the seven-day average for cases is standing at 44,145 cases per day – the highest level for almost three months.
The UK now has one of the highest weekly rates of new reported cases in the world.
While hospital admissions and deaths in the UK are slowly creeping up, vaccines are still working well overall to prevent severe disease.
Number 10 said the Government was “not complacent” about rising coronavirus cases but added the level of hospital admissions and deaths were “an order of magnitude lower” compared to earlier in the pandemic.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said there were “no plans” to use the contingency measures set out in the autumn/winter strategy, and stressed that “the most important message for the public to understand is the vital importance of the booster programme”, as well as for eligible children to come forward for a jab.
Professor Neil Ferguson, from Imperial College London, and a leading member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), said there is a need to speed up boosters and the vaccination of teenagers, who he suggested should be given two doses of a jab to block infection and transmission.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the Government is “ramping up” the vaccination programme, with children aged between 12 and 15 years old able to use the national booking service to secure their Covid-19 jabs “to make the most of half-term next week”.
Prof Ferguson, whose data was instrumental to the UK going into lockdown in March 2020, said the UK had higher Covid-19 cases than other countries for a number of reasons.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this was due to a “lower functional immunity” in the UK population compared to most other Western European countries.
He said this is down to waning immunity after a successful early vaccine rollout and a bigger reliance on the AstraZeneca vaccine, which he said protects very well against very severe outcomes of Covid-19 but “protects slightly less well than Pfizer against infection and transmission, particularly in the face of the Delta variant”.
He added that the UK is no longer in the top rank of European countries in terms of overall vaccination coverage, particularly in vaccinating teenagers.
Just over 67% of the UK population have received two doses of vaccine according to Government figures, compared with at least 75% in Denmark, 79% in Spain and 86% in Portugal.
The weekly rate of new reported cases of Covid-19 in the UK has jumped from 367 cases per 100,000 people at the start of October to its current level of 463 per 100,000.
By contrast, rates have dropped to very low levels in neighbouring countries such as Spain (24 per 100,000), France (48) and Germany (80).
Prof Ferguson said Covid booster jabs are “absolutely” the answer to waning immunity, adding that it is “critical we accelerate the booster programme”.
He said there is no reason to “panic right now” regarding the general situation, but repeated his belief that the administration of booster doses should be accelerated, as well as jabs for younger teenagers.
The scientist said “people need to be aware that we have currently higher levels of infection in the community than we’ve almost ever had during the pandemic”, amid suggestions that people have “gone back to normal”.
Prof Ferguson said it remains “prudent to be cautious in everyday interactions – certainly wearing masks helps that, it reminds people that we’re not completely out of the woods yet”.
While winter might see the Government’s “Plan B” implemented and “some rolling back of measures”, he feels it is unlikely “we’ll ever get close” to the lockdown the country experienced in January.
Sir David King, who was the Government’s chief scientific adviser from 2000 to 2007, said the Covid-19 booster rollout was going “extremely slowly”.
According to the Government coronavirus dashboard, 2.3 million people in England aged 80 and over had received both doses of vaccine as of April 17 – so were eligible for a booster dose as of October 17, however NHS England figures show that only 1.3 million people in England in this age range had received a booster dose as of that date.
In addition, 31% of eligible 75 to 79-year-olds and 15% of 70 to 74-year-olds have had a booster so far.
According to calculations from the John Roberts, from the Covid-19 Actuaries Response Group, which has been tracking the vaccine rollout, there are 8.5 million people in England now eligible for a booster if they want one.
He said there are 4.8 million who had their second dose at least six months ago, but who have not yet received a booster.
NHS England said 7.9 million people in England are eligible for a booster, of whom 5.5 million have received invitations.
Some 1.9 million people will be invited this week as they have become eligible over the last few days, it added.
This leaves around 500,000, which includes care home residents who are not invited through the national booking system.
An NHS England spokesman said: “Almost four million people have already received their booster in just four weeks since the rollout began – more than double the rate of the initial rollout in December.
“While the NHS can only invite people to get their booster six months on from their second jab, millions of people are getting invited within days of becoming eligible and as there is plenty of capacity available. The NHS message remains that when you are invited, you should book in immediately.”