As Covid-19 infections in the UK jump by more than half a million in a week, two new Omicron variants are being blamed.

Experts have said figures show the rise is likely driven by the latest variants BA.4 and BA.5.

A total of 2.3 million people in private households are estimated to have had the virus last week, up 32% from a week earlier, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

This is the highest estimate for total infections since late April, but is still some way below the record high of 4.9 million seen at the peak of the Omicron BA.2 wave at the end of March.

Sarah Crofts, ONS head of analytical outputs for the Covid-19 infection survey, said: “Across the UK we’ve seen a continued increase of over half a million infections, likely caused by the growth of BA.4 and BA.5 variants.

“This rise is seen across all ages, countries and regions of England.

“We will continue to monitor the data closely to see if this growth continues in the coming weeks.”

Covid-19 hospital admission increase

Hospital numbers are also continuing to rise, with early signs of a rise in intensive care admissions among older age groups.

St Helens Star: People testing positive for Covid-19 in private households in the UK. Infographic: PA GraphicsPeople testing positive for Covid-19 in private households in the UK. Infographic: PA Graphics

Dr Mary Ramsay, director of clinical programmes at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), said: “We continue to see an increase in Covid-19 data, with a rise in case rates and hospitalisations in those aged 65 years and over, and outbreaks in care homes.

“We can also now see a rise in ICU admissions in older age groups.

“Vaccination remains the best defence against severe disease and hospitalisation. Covid-19 has not gone away and we should all remember to keep up good hand and respiratory hygiene. It is also sensible to wear a face covering in crowded, enclosed spaces.”

Around one in six people aged 75 and over have not received a vaccine dose within the past six months, putting them more at risk of severe disease, the UKHSA added.

All over-75s in the UK have been offered a “spring booster”, available at least three months after their most recent jab, to ensure they continue to receive the maximum possible protection from the virus.

North Korea Covid-19 claims

St Helens Star: North Korea is blaming balloons flown from South Korea for spreading Covid-19. Picture: CanvaNorth Korea is blaming balloons flown from South Korea for spreading Covid-19. Picture: Canva

Elsewhere in the world, North Korea has suggested its Covid-19 outbreak began in people who had contact with balloons flown from South Korea.

The highly questionable claim appeared to be an attempt to hold its rival responsible amid increasing tensions.

Activists for years have flown balloons across the border to distribute hundreds of thousands of propaganda leaflets critical of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and North Korea has often expressed fury at the activists and at South Korea’s leadership for not stopping them.

South Korea’s Unification Ministry said there was no chance South Korean balloons might have spread the virus to North Korea.

Ties between the Koreas remain strained amid a long-running stalemate in US-led diplomacy on persuading North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions in return for economic and political benefits.