Coronavirus cases are expected to rise in the coming weeks after daily contacts among adults reached their highest level in nearly a year, scientists advising the government have said.
Meanwhile, relaxed rules around schools, sport and social activities mean children are having their most contacts since the pandemic began, according to the CoMix social contact survey run by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
Professor John Edmunds, an epidemiologist at the LSHTM and a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, said: “We’re making more contact than we have done really at any point in the period of the epidemic, but to some extent that’s intended, that’s what the easing of restrictions is all about, allowing us to start to go back to something more approaching normality.
“I do think we’ll see cases go up and they are indeed starting to creep up, but I don’t think there’s such a direct relationship now between contact patterns and cases, because of the levels of vaccination that we’ve seen.
“We are starting to vaccinate now the age groups that tend to make the highest numbers of contacts and so we’d expect that to start to have a really big impact on transmission as they are vaccinated.”
The study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, found that from 17 to 25 May, adults had an average of four contacts each weekday – higher than at any time in the pandemic apart from when restrictions were relaxed in July and August last year.
Over the same period, weekday contacts for children aged five to 17 rose to about 15, outstripping the previous high of 12 when schools reopened in September.
A breakdown of where contacts took place showed the increase among working-age adults was largely down to people returning to offices and other places of work.
Edmunds said: “That is probably one of the biggest levers government can pull, is to suggest that people work from home if they can. That does make quite a significant impact to the numbers of contacts that people will record.”
The survey found that while contacts had increased, and despite people being told they could hug one another again, the public had largely held back.
Edmunds said: “We’re allowed to hug each other now, but we’re not, or the majority of us are not, so I think many people are remaining cautious and I think that is helping to reduce transmission.
“If you look at where we are, we have a long way to go to get to normality. We’re making roughly half as many contacts as we were before the pandemic, maybe even less than that.”
The latest test and trace figures show the number of people testing positive for coronavirus in England has risen by 22% to the highest level in six weeks.
The data shows 17,162 people tested positive for Covid-19 at least once in the week to 26 May – up by one-fifth week on week and the largest number since the seven days to 14 April.
Meanwhile, the number of rapid Covid-19 tests being carried out in England has fallen to the lowest level in six weeks.
All members of the public are eligible to take two lateral flow tests a week. Just over 4.8 million such rapid tests were carried out in England in the seven days to 26 May.