UK Covid rates rocket to highest ever as 4.9 million people estimated to have virus on day free testing ends

Covid-19 infections in the UK have hit a record high as case rates rocket in England and Wales. It is estimated that around 4.9 million people in private UK households have contracted the virus in the week ending March 26, an increase from 4.3 million in the previous week, according to the ONS.

In England, around on in 13 people were likely to test positive for Covid-19 last week (4.1 million people) which is up from one in 16 (3.5 million people) in the week to March 19. Meanwhile, Scotland has seen its first week-on-week infection rate drop, although the ONS described the trend as “uncertain”.

In Wales, the estimate is up from 192,000 people (one in 16) last week to 212,000 people (one in 14) this week. It means both England and Wales are now recording their highest Covid-19 infection levels.

Readmore: All the Covid-19 testing rule changes coming into force today for NHS staff, patients, and regular people

In Scotland, some 451,200 people were estimated to have had the virus last week (one in 12) – this is down from 473,800 people (one in 11) in the previous week.

In Northern Ireland, the trend has also been described as “uncertain” by the ONS, with 123,000 people (one in 15) likely to have had Covid-19 last week – this is up from 108,700 (one in 17). Despite this, Scotland and Northern Ireland are tethering slightly below their recent record infection levels.

Kara Steel, a senior statistician for the ONS Covid-19 infection survey, said: “Infection levels remain high, with the highest levels recorded in our survey seen in England and Wales and notable increases among older age groups. The rapid rise continues to be fueled by the growth of the Omicron BA.2 variant across the UK.”

On Thursday, Dame Jenny Harries, chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency, said that despite high levels of Covid-19 infections, cases do not appear to be translating into hospital admissions and deaths.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There are around three-and-a-half million people in the last week up to that point, up to March 25, which is a very high level. But what we’re not seeing of course is a significant translation of that into serious illness, hospitalizations and most importantly, deaths.

“There has been a small uptick in deaths in the last week and again… some hospitals are coming under significant pressure and we shouldn’t underestimate that. But overall, immune defenses through the vaccination program have been really successful and of course we now have treatments”.

Today’s data comes as universal free testing in England comes to an end. From today, people in England need to turn to high street retailers for tests if they want them.

Earlier, Professor Tim Spector from King’s College London, who runs the Zoe Covid tracking app, said the timing of the end of free testing “couldn’t really be worse”. He added that England was now in a situation of “having to rely on the public to actually do the right thing and get these tests themselves when they get sick”.

He told Times Radio that “if we’re not having free testing, let’s have a clear policy on how you would know that you’re infected, and therefore you can self-isolate.

“To do that, the Government needs to admit that the symptoms of Covid have changed in the last two years, and that 80% of people now present with cold-like symptoms.

“And there should be a public health campaign to say at the moment, when your chances of having Covid are greater than a cold…test if you can afford it – (and) even if you can’t – assume you’ve got Covid .”

On Thursday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said people must “learn to live with Covid”.

“We are one of the most open and free countries in the world now, and that’s because of decisions that we’ve taken as a country,” he said. “It is right also as we learn to live with Covid that we withdraw free testing – universally, if it’s not needed any more, but we focus those resources on the people who need it most. And that’s what we’re doing.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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