The rate of coronavirus infections in increasing across all age groups and in all regions of the country, say researchers who have calculated the R number is now 1.6.
Random swab samples suggest there are now 96,000 new infections every day and rates of infection are doubling every nine days, researchers from the REACT-1 study led by Imperial College London have reported.
Their interim analysis, based on tests on 85,000 people taken between the 16 and 25 October, found that 18-24 year olds continue to have the highest prevalence of infection but the steepest rise was in 55-64 year olds, where rates have tripled compared to the previous round of testing.
The North West and Yorkshire and Humber remain the worst affected areas, they reported in a preprint.
The combination of high prevalence and rapid growth means that the second wave of the epidemic in England has now reached a critical stage, they concluded.
Professor Paul Elliott, director of the programme at Imperial, said: ‘These interim findings paint a concerning picture of the situation in England, where we’re seeing a nationwide increase in infection prevalence, which we know will lead to more hospitalisations and loss of life.
‘We’re also detecting early signs that areas which previously had low rates of infection are following trends observed in the country’s worst-affected areas.’
Professor Steven Riley, study author and Professor of Infectious Disease Dynamics at Imperial College London, said the size of the study meant they could offer detailed insight in the current situation of Covid-19 in England.
‘It’s too early to tell whether recent stricter measures are having an effect, which is why continued monitoring is vital to understand what works and adapt responses accordingly.’
Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the study showed the virus was continuing to grow nationwide and said the Government should have used half term to implement a circuit breaker to push infections down and fix test and trace.
‘Instead, the Prime Minister told us his current approach would bring the R number under 1.
‘Ministers must now outline whether they think their current approach is meeting that promise.’
It comes as the latest data from NHS Test and Trace, for the week of 15-21 October, showed 126,065 people tested positive in England – a 23% increase on the previous week. Out of those getting a test, 8.3% had a positive result, compared with 0.9% at the end of August.
Earlier this week, Imperial College researchers revealed that the number of people with Covid-19 antibodies fell more than a quarter over three months this summer, pointing to short-lived protection for those who have already fought off a coronavirus infection.