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Younger and mostly unvaccinated age groups are driving an "exponential" rise in coronavirus cases in England, say scientists tracking the epidemic.

New research by Imperial College London shows the bulk of infections is being fuelled by children aged between five and 12, as well as younger adults aged between 18 and 24.

Infections in these age groups around five times higher when compared to those over 65, the researchers said.

The study commissioned by the Government found that infections have increased 50 per cent between May 3 and June 7, coinciding with the rise of the Delta coronavirus variant which was first detected in India and is now dominant in the UK.

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Primary school-aged children are among those driving the bulk of infections
(Image: Rob Browne)

Data from nearly 110,000 swab tests carried out across England between May 20 and June 7 suggests Covid-19 cases are doubling every 11 days, with the highest prevalence in the North West and 1 in 670 people infected.

The experts from Imperial College London said their findings show a “rapid switch” between the Alpha (Kent) variant, which first appeared in the UK in September 2020, and the Delta variant in the last few weeks, with the latter accounting for up to 90 per cent of all coronavirus cases.

But they stressed that the country is in a much different position than autumn last year when an exponential growth triggered a second wave of coronavirus infections.

Which age groups had the highest prevalence?

Children aged five to 12 had the highest prevalence at 0.35 per cent, followed by younger adults aged between 18 and 24, at 0.36 per cent.

The study found that those two younger age groups had five-fold higher rates of swab-positivity compared with those aged 65 and older.

Here is the full breakdown by age group:

  • 5-12 – weighed prevalence of 0.35 per cent
  • 13-17 – 0.16 per cent
  • 18-24 – 0.26 per cent
  • 25-34 – 0.11 per cent
  • 35-44 – 0.12 per cent
  • 45-54 – 0.14 per cent
  • 55-64 – 0.08 per cent
  • 65-74 – 0.07 per cent
  • 75+ – 0.07 per cent

Groups of young people eat and drink in Soho, central London, earlier in the pandemic
(Image: PA)

The report states: "Although prevalence in people under the age of 50 was 2.5 times that of those aged 50 and above (0.20 per cent vs 0.08 per cent), infections appear to be growing at a similar rate in both groups.

It said the expansion of the vaccine programme to people aged 18 years and above "should help substantially to reduce the overall growth of the epidemic".

The report adds: "The observed patterns may reflect increased social interactions among children and young adults as schools remain open and lockdown eases, as well as high vaccine uptake among older people."

Stephen Riley, professor of infectious disease dynamics at Imperial and one of the study authors, said: “Prevalence is increasing exponentially and it is being driven by younger ages.

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He added: “And it appears to be doubling every 11 days.

“Clearly that is bad news… but the key thing to point out here is that we are in a very different part of the epidemic in the UK and it is very difficult to predict the duration of the exponential phase.”

The scientists said their findings from the React study suggest that imminent expansion of the vaccine programme to those aged 18 and above “should help substantially to reduce the overall growth of the epidemic”.

Data showed that the “weakened link” between infection rates and hospital admissions was “well maintained” for those aged 65 and above, while a recent reversal of these trends for people aged under 65 "likely reflects lower vaccination rates in this group".

Prof Riley said: “We have observed this reconvergence in the pattern of hospitalisations and deaths versus infections, especially in an age group under 65.

“These patterns are consistent with two vaccine doses being highly effective.”

Study author Paul Elliott, director of the React programme and chair in epidemiology and public health medicine at Imperial, said: “I think we can take quite a lot of comfort from the fact that when we look in the details, it does appear that there is very, very good protection in the older ages, where there is virtually everyone double vaccinated.

“And in the younger group under the age of 65, where a much smaller proportion have been vaccinated or double vaccinated, most infections are occurring in the unvaccinated group.

“And the Government has clearly announced that they want to vaccinate all adults in the period between now and July 19, I think that will make a very big difference and increase the total amount of population immunity.”

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: “These findings highlight the stark context in which we took the difficult decision to delay Step 4 of the road map out of lockdown.”

On Wednesday, Mr Hancock confirmed that care home staff will be required to have coronavirus vaccinations “to protect residents”, and added that making jabs compulsory for people in the NHS is also being considered.

England’s chief medical officer, Professor Chris Whitty, has previously said doctors and care workers have a “professional responsibility” to protect their patients.

From October, subject to parliamentary approval and a 16-week grace period, anyone working in a Care Quality Commission-registered care home in England must have two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine unless they have a medical exemption, the Department of Health and Social Care said.

The requirement will also apply to people coming into care homes to do other work, such as tradespeople, hairdressers and beauticians, and inspectors.

There will be exceptions for family and friends visiting care homes, under 18s, emergency services and people undertaking urgent maintenance work, the department said.