Will the nasty new Covid variant called Juno cause Britain's biggest wave ever? Experts warn cold weather and the return of schools will cause new chaos in NHS hospitals already overwhelmed with flu and other seasonal diseases

A troublesome new Covid variant sweeping Britain could send cases to a record high, experts fear.

As many as one in sixteen people were infected in London in mid-December – making it the worst-hit region in England in the run-up to Christmas.

Virus numbers have doubled nationally in less than a fortnight following the sudden arrival of the 'Juno' strain.

Warnings were issued that things would get worse due to the busy festive social calendar, with Brits flocking to parties and socializing with their loved ones indoors.

Now virologists have claimed that January's freezing temperatures, which have brought snow to parts of London, and the return of schools will only contribute to skyrocketing infection rates.

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Exactly how widespread Covid is currently remains a mystery due to natural delays in surveillance projects, which reflect the spread of the virus a few weeks earlier.

However, according to data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and the Office for National Statistics (ONS), it was estimated that 4.3 percent of people across England were infected as of December 13.

By comparison, data shows prevalence peaked at 7.6 per cent in the week to April 2, 2022, driven by a surge from Omicron spin-off BA.2 and ministers rolling out the latest Covid restrictions a month earlier had dropped.

Although Covid no longer poses the same threat as it did when it arrived on the scene in early 2020, there are currently thousands of people in hospital with the virus every day.

And the upturn comes as NHS facilities are already juggling a spike in flu and other seasonal bugs.

What do we know about Juno?

Juno was first spotted by the UKHSA as part of routine horizon scanning – the process of monitoring emerging infections that could affect the UK.

The variant, scientifically known as JN.1, was flagged because it contained an L455S mutation in the spike protein.

This adaptation is known to help the virus evade the immune protection built up from previous infections and vaccinations.

It also began to take off internationally and in Britain, the UKHSA noted.

This prompted the agency to give the species an official variant and name it V-23DEC-01 – a process that means the species is being formally tracked.

As of December 30, Juno was responsible for 64.5 percent of the UK's Covid cases.

For example, in the last week of 2023, hospitalizations for norovirus and RSV simultaneously reached their highest levels since the pandemic began.

Professor Christina Pagel, a member of Independent SAGE and a data scientist at University College London, said infection levels in January could “equal” and “even exceed” previous infection peaks.

She told me i: 'And BA.2 – the largest wave ever in England in March and April 2022 – peaked four weeks after it reached 50 per cent of cases.

'So unfortunately it is likely that this JN.1 wave has not yet peaked and will peak in mid-January, next week or the week after.

'And then the infections will remain very high for a few more weeks, also in a downward direction.

“I am confident that this wave will match and perhaps even surpass the first two Omicron waves in 2022.”

Professor Rowland Kao, from the University of Edinburgh, said i that the high prevalence of Juno will increase pressure on the NHS.

He urged people to be 'extra conscious' of their contact with high-risk groups, even if they have had a booster jab.

Estimates of Covid prevalence come from a joint project between the UKHSA and ONS.

A sample of 30,000 people is taken every week to find out how widespread the virus is.

The current project, which began in December, took over from another mass testing program, which ended in March 2023.

Separate data suggests that Juno, scientifically known as JN.1, now makes up two-thirds of all new cases.

The disease first started spreading in Britain in October and was spotted by the UKHSA as part of routine horizon scanning – the process of monitoring emerging infections.

The variant was flagged because it contained a rogue mutation in the spike protein known to help the virus evade the body's internal defenses.

Health experts say this makes it easier for the virus to infect the nose and throat compared to other circulating variants, which the immune system can more easily fight due to vaccination and previous infections.

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This led the agency to designate the species as an official variant in early December, naming it V-23DEC-01 – a process that means the species is being formally monitored.

There is no evidence that Juno, as the plant has since been nicknamed, is more dangerous than previous species.

Ministers have repeatedly said they will not resort to imposing lockdowns unless a doomsday variant emerges as a result of strong immunity in the population built up through repeated waves of infections and the rollout of vaccines.

However, spikes in Covid cases could cause mass illness across the country, wreaking havoc on schools, healthcare and public transport.

There are also concerns that this will fuel the number of people affected by the long Covid-19 epidemic – symptoms of infection lasting more than a month such as brain fog, fatigue and headaches.

Any rise in Covid infections would come at a time when the NHS is already bursting at the seams due to a rise in hospital admissions from coronavirus, flu, RSV and norovirus.

Will the nasty new Covid variant called Juno cause Britain39s

Latest UKHSA data for the week to December 31 shows Covid hospital admissions in England have risen to 5.2 per 100,000 people.

The figure has risen by 8.3 percent in a week and is more than double the toll recorded a month earlier.

However, the toll is a fraction of the toll recorded in the same week in previous years.

Last year the percentage was twice as high (10.5), more than three times as high in 2022 (18.8) and four times as high in 2021 (21.4).

This year the figures were highest in the South West (6.48), West Midlands (6) and South East (5.7).

Older age groups, known to be most vulnerable to the virus, recorded the highest admission rate: 55.1 per 100,000.

UKHSA data also shows flu admissions are rising.

Hospital admissions in England hit 6.8 per 100,000 people in the week to December 31, up by a third in a week and ten times more than a month earlier.

Levels are lower than the same week last year (12.7), which was the worst flu season in a decade as it marked the first winter without Covid restrictions since the start of the pandemic – allowing the flu to spread rapidly by a background of low immunity.

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However, current flu admissions are three times higher than in 2018/19 and a third higher than in 2017/18.

The number of flu hospital admissions was low in 2020/21 and 2021/22 as measures were taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus and also stop the spread of the flu.

Data from the UKHSA also shows that more Britons were admitted to hospital with respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), a common bug behind coughs and sneezes, in the last week of the year, compared to the same period in any other year since the beginning of the pandemic.

In the week to December 31, there were 2.2 admissions per 100,000.

For comparison, the figure is one tenth higher than last year (2) and three times higher than in 2021/2022.

Separate data from NHS England shows that there were more bed admissions due to norovirus at the end of December than in any year since Covid started.

Winter vomiting disease closed 501 beds – either occupied by patients or closed for infection control purposes.

The toll is 18 percent higher than in 2022, while it is 85 percent higher than in 2021 and eight times higher than in 2020.

For most people, the stomach flu usually goes away on its own within two to three days. But in severe cases, especially in children and older adults, dehydration can lead to hospitalizations.

Because the virus is spread through close contact, it can easily take off among patients hospitalized for other reasons if someone in their department has the virus.

Professor Sir Andrew Pollard, an expert on infection and immunity at the University of Oxford, warned that disease rates will continue to rise in January.

Sir Andrew, who is also chairman of the Government's vaccine taskforce, said he expects 'an increase in the number of infections among the population in the coming week'.

He told the Mirror that it is normal for illness rates to drop during the holidays and then bounce back when people go back to school and work.

In response to concerns that demand on hospitals will rise next week, the NHS is looking to increase the number of available beds from around 97,600 to 99,000 from January 15.

However, a further spike in hospital admissions due to the viruses will apply even more pressure hospitals in England, which are currently facing the longest strike in the history of doctors in training.

The medics left last Wednesday and will not return to work until 7am tomorrow. It is thought the strike will result in more than 200,000 appointments and surgeries being canceled.

The British Medical Association (BMA), which has coordinated the action, is demanding a 35 percent pay rise for trainee doctors, arguing that their wages have not kept up with inflation over the past 15 years.

Doctors have already received an average pay increase of 8.8 percent for 2023/2024. However, the increase was greater for first-year physicians, who received 10.3 percent.

Junior doctors in their first year now have a basic salary of £32,300, while those with three years' experience earn £43,900. The oldest earn £63,100.

Last month, officials offered doctors an additional three percent raise. However, the BMA declined the offer and continued with further strike action.

It comes as the Prime Minister today admitted he has not done enough to reduce the record NHS backlog of 7.7 million.

Rishi Sunak pledged to reduce the number of people waiting for care by 2023. However, the number of people waiting for care has increased by about 500,000.

Speaking at a PM Connect event in the North West today, he said: 'We have to be honest. While we have virtually eliminated the people who wait the longest, we have not made enough of a dent in the wait lists.”

He said industrial action was partly to blame.

Mr Sunak said that 'while we wait to resolve this, we are continuing to do the things that will strengthen our NHS for the long term', including training 'significantly' more doctors and nurses, and boosting 'our first smoke-free generation to relieve that pressure'.