COVID: Despite the end of free testing, the virus is stronger than ever | Science and technology news


You’re forgiven if you thought the COVID pandemic was on the way out.

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

On the same day that free COVID testing ends in England, infection rates have reached the highest on record.

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Tears as free COVID tests are scrapped

According to the latest Office of National Statistics (ONS) COVID Infection Survey, an estimated 4.9 million of us were infected with COVID last week. That’s 650,000 more people than the week before, almost another record in itself.

“The best I can say is that the increase isn’t as big as the nearly one million increase the week before,” says Professor Kevin McConway of the Open University.

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

With free testing coming to an end, it goes to show just how important the ONS’ publicly funded weekly sampling effort is becoming. It will be our best measure of what COVID is doing to the population from one week to the next.

The surge is being driven by the sub-variant of Omicron called the BA.2, which has been rapidly replacing its BA.1 cousin around the world. In Scotland, the BA.2 wave built faster than in the rest of the UK.

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And in that regard, there is a touch of positive news in the ONS data. Data from Scotland suggests their wave is leveling off and possibly even peaking.

For England there is even thinner evidence of this. Yesterday’s COVID surveillance report suggests test positivity – the proportion of tests that come back positive – is falling in England.

That could be an early indicator of a drop in numbers, but it’s hard to know for sure as this data is based on the rapidly declining number of tests being conducted in the community.

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

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

Omicron is milder in well-vaccinated individuals. And there is reason to hope the situation does not get too much worse as 4 doses are now being given to the over 75s as part of the spring booster campaign.

Just as well given that according to today’s ONS data, around 1 in 15 over the age of 70 is infected with COVID. Without vaccination, the effects of this level of transmission would have taken a terrible toll.

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