Most confirmed coronavirus cases are now in younger people in an “extraordinary” shift that has raised hopes that deaths can be kept low without lockdowns.
Two thirds of confirmed infections are in the under-40s while numbers in older people have fallen sharply, a Times analysis of Public Health England figures reveals.
A fifth of cases are in people over 50, compared with three quarters in the spring. Cases in those over 80 account for 3 per cent of the total, down from 28 per cent in March.
The need for further restrictions could be reduced as many older people appear to be voluntarily shielding. This allows younger people who are less badly affected by Covid to return to work, experts suggested.
One government adviser said that a Swedish-style strategy of keeping workplaces and hospitality open while advising older people to take greater precautions could help Britain to get through the winter.
While the new figures can be attributed in part to increased testing in people with milder symptoms, experts said that there had been a significant shift in infection rates among younger people as they took advantage of lockdown easing. The peak age range for infections is now in the 20s, having been in the 80s until early June when outbreaks in care homes and hospitals during the start of the pandemic began to be restricted.
Mark Woolhouse of the University of Edinburgh, who sits on the government’s SPI-M modelling group, said that “the epidemic is starting to divide” by age. “There are hints from the behavioural data that younger adults are embracing the exit from lockdown more enthusiastically than older people,” he said, suggesting that older adults were “shielding themselves”.
Ministers have cautioned against plans in which individuals would be asked to shield to different degrees based on their age. They are concerned that if infections rise in the young they will spill over to more vulnerable people eventually.
However, Professor Woolhouse argued: “People have worked out who’s at risk and they’re acting on it. Government and local authorities may not need to be that authoritarian about this. Maybe what people need is advice. It’s possible that would be enough to damp down many local outbreaks.”
He said that “we don’t have to panic now and maybe we can be more measured in our response”, including introducing a policy of protecting older people while allowing others to continue normal life. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported yesterday that infection rates were flat, which could be because they were falling in the elderly while rising in the young. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, said that the ONS data was a reassuring sign that the government’s measures were “supporting the country to safely return to normal”.
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