The number of hospital patients in England testing positive for Covid-19 is on a clear upwards trend, in the latest sign a new wave of infections is under way.
A total of 7,024 people with coronavirus were in hospital as of 8am on September 28, according to NHS England.
This is up 37% from 5,142 a week earlier and the highest figure since August 19.
Patient levels topped 14,000 in mid-July at the peak of the wave of infections caused by the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants of the virus, after which they started to fall steadily.
But this decline came to a halt in mid-September.
The latest figures show all regions are recording a rise in patients, with south-west England back to levels last seen at the end of July.
Numbers remain well below those reached during the early waves of the pandemic, however.
The rate of Covid-19 hospital admissions is also increasing, with 7.6 admissions per 100,000 people in the week to September 25, up from five the previous week.
Rates are highest among people aged 85 and over, at 82 per 100,000.
This is up sharply from 49.4 and is the highest rate for this age group since mid-August.
Around six in 10 patients who test positive for Covid-19 are being treated primarily for something else.
They need to be isolated from patients who do not have Covid, putting extra pressure on hospital staff already struggling to clear a record backlog of treatment.
Separate data from the Zoe Health Study, which is based on symptoms reported by volunteers across the country, suggests an average of one in 32 people in the UK was likely to have symptomatic Covid-19 at the start of this week, with rates rising in all age groups.
Professor Tim Spector, co-founder of the Zoe study, said: “It’s clear we’re now seeing an autumn wave of Covid-19, combined with increases in hospital admissions.
“With rates on the rise, especially in the vulnerable elderly age groups, the impact on hospitalisations could be higher.
“However, the youngest age group are showing possible early signs of case numbers slowing. Children tend to be a leader of infection trends, so if this continues next week it is possible that the Covid wave might not be as bad as previously predicted.”
Figures published last week by the Office for National Statistics showed that Covid-19 infections in England had increased for the first time since July.
Some 766,500 people in private households were estimated to have tested positive for coronavirus in the week to September 14, or around one in 70 – up from 705,800, or one in 75, in the previous week.
Meanwhile, more than a quarter (28%) of over-80s in England have now received an autumn booster dose of Covid-19 vaccine, along with a similar proportion (28.3%) of 75 to 79-year-olds, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
All people aged 65 and over are eligible for the booster, providing they had their last jab at least three months ago.
Doses are also available to frontline health and care workers, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.
The booster is intended to increase protection against serious illness during the next waves of the virus and will eventually be offered to everyone aged 50 and over.
The UKHSA figures, which cover vaccinations up to September 25, also show that 18.5% of 70 to 74-year-olds have had the booster, as well as 12.9% of people aged 65 to 69.
Dr Mary Ramsay, UKHSA director of public health programmes, said it was “clear now that we are seeing an increase” in levels of Covid-19.
“Cases have started to climb and hospitalisations are increasing in the oldest age groups. In the coming weeks, we expect a double threat of low immunity and widely circulating flu and Covid-19, creating an unpredictable winter and additional pressure on health services,” she said.
“While Covid-19 and flu can be mild infections for many, we must not forget that they can cause severe illness or even death for those most vulnerable in our communities.
“If you are unwell this winter, please try to stay at home and avoid contact with vulnerable people – this will help stop infections spreading.”