Covid infections reach record high as free testing ends

‘Difficult to predict where things will go from here’, says expert behind study showing record prevalence in UK

Samuel Lovett
Science Correspondent
Thursday 31 March 2022 20:00 BST
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<p>Some 349,011 people are being infected with Covid every day</p>

Some 349,011 people are being infected with Covid every day

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The number of people with Covid-19 across the UK has reached record highs, according to new estimates, as the government ends mass free testing in England.

Some 349,011 people are being infected every day with the virus, according to the latest Zoe Covid Study update. This means that one in 15 people in the UK has the virus, the highest figure reported since the beginning of the pandemic.

Campaigners and scientists have warned that the lives of the most vulnerable people in society are being endangered by the decision to scale back free testing, which will only continue to be available for specific groups, including hospital patients and care home residents.

Sajid Javid, the health secretary, has said the public must “learn to live with Covid”. But England’s chief medical officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty, speaking separately at a science conference on Thursday, warned the virus will “keep throwing surprises at us for the next few years”.

The number of estimated cases in the UK has risen by 7 per cent from last week, when 324,954 people were being infected on a daily basis, the Zoe Covid Study shows.

Professor Tim Spector, lead scientist of study, said the rate of increase “is showing signs of slowing down” but added it would be “difficult to predict where things will go from here” once all restrictions are lifted and free mass testing is cut back.

On average, 1 in 15 people in England have Covid, compared to 1 in 18 in Wales and 1 in 16 in Scotland, the study said. New cases rates have begun falling in the youngest age group (17 and below) and 34 to 55-year-olds. Cases have stopped rising or are slowing down in all other cohorts.

Under current guidance, free testing will continue to be provided for: patients in hospital, those who are especially vulnerable to Covid and eligible for community drug treatments, care home residents and people working in some high-risk settings, including prisons. Visitors to care homes and hospital patients are not eligible.

Carers UK and the Alzheimer’s Society are among those who have criticised the move to roll back free testing, with the latter saying it “risks gambling” with the lives of people living with dementia in care homes.

The Alzheimer’s Society has been campaigning to keep lateral flow tests free for all people visiting loved ones in care settings.

Dr Peter English, a former chair of the BMA Public Health Medicine Committee, said it was “egregious” to remove free testing for those in contact with an elderly person in a care home or a sick individual, such as a chemotherapy patient.

Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, said that removing free “will add to the false sense of security which is currently driving record levels of infection”.

He added: “It will encourage people to behave as though the virus doesn’t exist and that there’s no need to be concerned about spreading the virus, particularly to those who are most vulnerable. 

“It will also make it difficult to rapidly detect future outbreaks and to maintain surveillance for new variants.”

While free testing ends in England, it will continue during April in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and until the summer in Wales.

Ministers in England argue that even though infection levels have been rising, vaccines and antivirals are working to protect the vast majority of people.

The most recent data shows there were 15,632 people in hospital in England with Covid as of Wednesday, up 18 per cent week on week and the highest since 19 January.

While roughly half of patients in hospital with Covid were admitted for other health issues, numbers are also rising in primary Covid hospitalisations, while admissions in over-65s are now 15 per cent higher than their January 2022 peak.

Asked on Thursday morning if it was the right time to end free Covid testing, UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) chief executive Dr Dame Jenny Harries said the UK must be prepared for the pandemic to “remain unpredictable”.

Speaking during a Royal Society of Medicine conference, Prof Whitty said the UK needed to retain the experience of its doctors and public specialists to “response to Covid, because it’s going to keep throwing surprises at us for the next few years”.

“We can’t completely switch away from it,” he added.

Across the NHS, there is “understandable concern about what the end of universal free testing risks means for the government’s ambition to reduce health inequalities,” said Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive of NHS Providers, with trust chiefs concerned poorer people and communities will be unable to access regular tests, leaving them more vulnerable to infection and illness.

“There is a risk that we may see a two tier system where those who cannot afford to pay for tests are at greater risk of catching the virus,” she said. “No one should have to make a choice between their health or heating.”

Headteachers have also criticised the government for ending mass free testing. Guidance says that those who test positive should stay at home and avoid contact with others for five days, adding “for children and young people aged 18 and under, the advice will be three days”.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said this advice was “confusing” and that abandoning free testing in the run-up to exams “makes absolutely no sense at all”.

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