There is “no particular cause for concern” about the UK’s rapidly rising number of Covid cases, Sajid Javid, the health secretary, has said, saying that England was demonstrating to the world a successful model for living with the virus.
Despite survey data showing almost 5% of the population in England had Covid earlier this month, and record infection levels among the over-70s, Javid said the “wall of defence” from vaccines was keeping the situation stable.
From Monday, 5 million people across England at higher risk from Covid – the over-75s, care home residents and those who are immunocompromised – will be able to book a second booster jab in the coming weeks. Javid confirmed that a wider booster programme, most likely aimed at the over-50s, was expected in the autumn.
“Our level of concern hasn’t changed,” Javid told BBC1’s Breakfast programme. “Although the case numbers are rising, infections are rising, and indeed hospital numbers are rising, they are still way below their peak.
“It’s also important for us when we review this to understand why they are rising. And that is primarily down to the increased social mixing we are seeing, as our country has opened up, but also the BA.2 subvariant of Omicron, which we know is, on the one hand more infectious, but on the other hand we know that our vaccines work just as well against this.
“Taking all that into account, of course we keep the data under review, but there’s no particular cause for concern at this point.”
Asked about the case numbers in a later interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Javid said that while 11,500 people in hospital in England had Covid, 60% of these were being treated for non-Covid reasons.
“There’s no particular cause for concern at this point,” he said. “The reason why things are stable and we are learning to live with Covid is because of our vaccine wall of defence.”
There is particular concern about the scale of infections in older people, while school leaders fear preparations for A-levels and GCSEs are being disrupted by outbreaks among staff and students.
The ongoing Office for National Statistics Covid survey, based on swab tests taken in the community, found that almost 5% of the population in England had Covid in the week ending 12 March, including 3.5% of people in the oldest age group.
The high prevalence among older people has prompted unease, after reports this week that vaccine immunity declines steeply in care-home residents. It is six months since many people in this age group had their last vaccine dose.
Javid dismissed the idea of complacency. He said: “For anyone to suggest that the government or our advisers are unbothered would be clearly wrong. We have a plan for how, as a country, we learn to live with Covid, and that plan is working.” England was, he added, “successfully showing the world” how to live with the virus.
While free Covid testing for most people will end in April, Javid said the ONS survey and similar ongoing studies, such as one based in care homes, would help track the progress of the virus.
He said: “Because of that we will still have excellent data on a very regular basis about what is going on with the virus in the country. But the one thing that we will remain focused on is the the vaccination programme.”