COVID: Despite the end of free testing, the virus is stronger than ever

You would be forgiven if you thought the covid pandemic was coming out.

But today’s data shows that, at least from a virus perspective, it is stronger than ever.

On the same day that free covid testing ends in England, infection levels have reached the highest ever recorded.

Use the Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Tears when free covid tests were scrapped

According to the latest Covid infection survey from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), an estimated 4.9 million of us were infected with covid last week. That is 650,000 more people than the week before, almost another record in itself.

“The best I can find to say about it is that the increase is not as large as the increase of almost a million the week before,” said Professor Kevin McConway, of Open University.

The figures are similar across the UK – ranging from one in 12 in Scotland to one in 15 in Northern Ireland.

Given that free trials are coming to an end, it illustrates how important the publicly funded weekly sampling effort from ONS will be. It will be our best measure of what covid does in the population from one week to the next.

The increase is driven by the sub-variant of Omicron called BA.2 which has quickly replaced its cousin BA.1 around the world. In Scotland, the BA.2 wave was built faster than in the rest of the UK.

Who can still get free side flow tests from today?

And in that respect, there is a hint of positive news in ONS data. Data from Scotland suggest that their wave is flattening out, and may even cross the top.

There is even more slim evidence of the same for England. Yesterday’s covid monitoring report suggests that test positivity – the proportion of tests that return positive – is declining in the UK.

It may be an early indicator of a decrease in the number but it is difficult to know for sure because these data are based on the rapidly declining number of tests done in society.

The consequence of all this is, of course, that hospital care is also increasing. In Scotland, they exceeded the peak in January 2022, in early March. In England, they have just passed the New Year’s peak.

The good news here, though, is that deaths are still lower than in any previous wave.

In well-vaccinated individuals, Omicron is milder. And there is reason to hope that the situation does not get too much worse as the fourth dose is now given to people over the age of 75 as part of this spring’s booster campaign.

Equally good considering that according to today’s ONS data, about 1 in 15 over the 70s are infected with covid. Without vaccination, the effect of that level of transmission would have taken a terrible toll.

Leave a Comment