Covid-19 infections are rising across most of the UK, with levels in Scotland hitting a new high and about 1 of every 20 people in England having the disease, new figures show.
In England and Wales the virus is circulating at levels last seen at the start of February, though the trend in Northern Ireland is “uncertain” with infections likely to have fallen slightly.
Across the UK as a whole, 3.3 million people were estimated to have coronavirus last week, up from 2.6 million the previous week, the Office for National Statistics said.
James Naismith, of Oxford University, described the latest figures as a “sharp uptick”.
“At this level of prevalence and the decision not to halt the spread, the most likely outcome is that almost everyone who is susceptible is going to be infected,” he said.
“Without vaccines, this would be bleak. Countries with poor vaccination rates face a very challenging future.
“For the UK, my main concern is for the vulnerable, for whom this disease is serious, and for those whose lives will be blighted by long Covid.
“Every effort must be made to triple vaccinate as many people as possible, quadruple vaccinate the most vulnerable and make available antivirals.”
The number of cases is still far below levels at the start of the year, when 4.3 million people were likely to have had the virus.
But it is further evidence that Covid-19 is becoming more prevalent across most of the country and comes as the number of people in hospital with the virus is rising.
About one in 20 people in private households in England had Covid-19 in the week to March 12, or 2.7 million people, the statistics office said.
This is up from one in 25, or 2.1 million people, in the previous week and is the second week in a row that infections are estimated to have increased.
Wales has also reported its second successive jump in infections, with the figure up from 97,900, or one in 30, to 125,400, or one in 25.
In Scotland, infections have now risen for seven weeks in a row and have reached another record, with 376,300 people likely to have had Covid-19 last week, or one in 14. This is up from 299,900 people, or one in 18, the previous week.
But in Northern Ireland, the statistics office described the trend as “uncertain”, with the number down slightly from 143,800 people, or about one in 13, to 130,600, or one in 14.
The statistics office's infection survey is the most reliable measure of the prevalence of coronavirus in the UK and its latest findings confirm that another increase in infections is under way.
The “rapid rise” of the BA. 2 variant — a mutation of the Omicron variant — is driving the high levels of the virus, with BA. 2 now accounting for a majority of infections across the country, the office said.
The percentage of people testing positive for Covid-19 is estimated to have jumped in all regions of England last week, with the highest prevalence in the south-east (about one in 17 people), London (one in 18) and the south-west (one in 19).
Infections have also risen among all age groups in England, with children from age 2 to school year 6 estimated to have the highest level (about one in 16), followed by adults aged 25 to 34 (one in 18).