COVID-19: Despite the end of free testing, the virus is stronger than ever

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You’d be forgiven for thinking the COVID pandemic was on its way out.

But today’s data show that, from the virus’ perspective at least, it’s stronger than ever.

On the same day free COVID testing comes to an end in England, infection levels have reached the highest ever recorded.

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Tears as free COVID tests 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, nearly another record in its own right.

“The best that I can find to say about it is that the increase isn’t as big as the increase of almost a million the week before,” says Professor Kevin McConway, of the Open University.

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

Given free testing is coming to an end, it illustrates just how important the publicly funded weekly sampling effort by the ONS is going to become. It will become our best measure of what COVID is doing in the population from one week to the next.

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

Who can still get free lateral flow tests from today?

And in that regard there is a hint of positive news in the ONS data. The data from Scotland suggests their wave is flattening off, possibly even passing the peak.

There’s even more slender evidence of the same for England. In yesterday’s COVID surveillance report, a suggestion that test positivity – the proportion of tests that come back positive – is falling in England.

That could be an early indicator of a decline in numbers but it’s hard to know for sure as that data is based on the rapidly falling number of tests being done in the community.

The consequence of all this of course is that hospitalisations are going up too. In Scotland they exceeded the January 2022 peak, at the beginning of March. In England they’ve just passed the New Year peak.

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

In well-vaccinated people Omicron is milder. And there’s reason to hope the situation won’t get too much worse as 4th 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 70s are infected with COVID. Without vaccination, the impact of that level of transmission would have been taking a terrible toll.

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