Is this proof we’ve learned how to live with Covid? Infections hit record 4.9 million in the same week that free testing is scrapped
- Around 4.9m people in UK are estimated to have had the virus in the week ending March 26, up from 4.3 million in previous week, ONS said
- Data reveals one in 13 in England are thought to have had Covid during that week – up from one in 16 the week before
- Despite soaring infections, fuelled by the Omicron BA.2 variant, people in England now need to turn to the high street for tests if they want them
Covid infection levels have hit a record high – in the same week that free Covid testing for millions in England is scrapped.
Around 4.9 million people in the UK are estimated to have had the virus in the week ending March 26, up from 4.3 million in the previous week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.
Data reveals one in 13 in England are thought to have had Covid during that week – up from one in 16 the week before.
But despite soaring infections, fuelled by the Omicron BA.2 variant, people in England now need to turn to the high street for tests if they want them.
While some groups are still eligible for free testing – such as certain hospital patients and those at high risk of severe Covid – most people will now have to fork out around £2 per test from a pharmacy.
Covid infection levels have hit a record high – in the same week that free Covid testing for millions in England is scrapped
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 told Times Radio: ‘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 per cent of people now present with cold-like symptoms.’
The ONS data also shows that one in 12 people in Scotland are thought to have had Covid in the week ending March 26, one in 14 in Wales and one in 15 in Northern Ireland.
Infections among people aged 35 and over in England have reached record levels and there have been ‘notable increases’ in the oldest groups.
On Thursday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said we must ‘learn to live with Covid’, adding that it was ‘right’ to focus free resources on those ‘that need it most’.
But the move has sparked a backlash from health campaigners, with the British Medical Association urging the Government to reconsider.
Deputy chairman Dr David Wrigley said: ‘Right now we’re in a situation where Covid is rife across the UK and yet testing… is no longer being made free for our patients.’
Bookings open today for children aged five to 11 to receive their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine.
Parents and carers can arrange appointments for Monday onwards through the NHS vaccine website or by calling 119 from 7am today.
Up to five million children will be eligible for the Pfizer/BioNTech jab, which will be given at a third of the normal strength.
They can take their second dose at least 12 weeks later.
Can I still get free tests? Why is swabbing over? Do I need to keep testing?
Free Covid tests for everyone in England has ended, but what should I do if I have Covid? Am I one of the people still eligible to get free tests?
Below, your questions are answered:
– Can I still get free tests?
The majority of people in England will no longer be eligible for free Covid tests from April 1.
The Government has set out the groups who will still be eligible for free testing when they have symptoms of the virus, these include some hospital patients, some people at high risk of severe Covid and some who live or work in ‘high risk settings’ including some NHS and social care settings or prisons.
While there are still high rates of the virus in the community, health and social care staff will still be able to get access to free tests, even when they don’t have symptoms.
– What about people who live in care homes and hospices?
Routine tests for care home and hospice residents will no longer continue and will only be provided in the event of an outbreak or a resident being admitted.
– Why has the Government decided to stop free tests?
The short answer: Money.
The Department of Health and Social Care said testing has come at a ‘significant cost’ to the taxpayer, with the testing, tracing and isolation budget costing more than £15.7 billion in 2021/22.
It said that testing can also be reduced thanks to the protection afforded to the population through vaccination and the use of antiviral medication.
– So I do not need to keep testing?
Ministers have said that most people no longer need to take lateral flow tests. This includes visitors to hospitals and care homes.
– But if I want to keep testing I can still buy them?
Sure, they start at around £2 a test, if you buy a pack.
– What do I do if I get Covid?
People who have a positive Covid-19 test in England will be advised to try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people for five days, which is when they are most infectious.
Those who are positive, or have symptoms, and need to leave home will be urged to wear masks, avoid crowded places and stay away from people with weakened immune systems.
– What about if I feel generally unwell and I’m not sure if it’s Covid?
The new advice is that people should try and stay at home until they feel better.
Those who have a symptoms of a respiratory illness such as a high temperature or ‘who feel unwell’ are being encouraged to stay home until they feel well enough to resume normal activities or when their temperature has subsided, the Department said on Tuesday.
– What about children going to school?
The Government is going to advise that children and young people who are unwell and have a high temperature should ‘stay at home and avoid contact with other people, where they can’ and that ‘they can go back to school, college or childcare when they no longer have a high temperature, and they are well enough to attend’.
– But don’t we need tests to monitor new variants?
Yes, but probably not at the current level of testing.
The Office for National Statistics’ flagship Covid Infection Survey is to continue for the next year — albeit at a reduced level. And other infection monitoring studies will also continue.
– What if there is a sudden wave of a new variant that is more deadly?
Ministers have reserved the right to stand up testing capacity again in the event of a new variant, this includes keeping a stockpile of lateral flow tests.
– What risks does reducing testing carry?
The Government’s chief scientific adviser was asked this question on Wednesday. Sir Patrick Vallance told MPs that a reduction in testing will lead to a ‘decrease in precautionary behaviours’ which could drive up transmission of the virus.
He told the Science and Technology Committee of MPs: ‘Testing in effect does three things: it is very important for surveillance; it enables precautionary behaviour and it’s useful to protect those who are most vulnerable.’
– Are people happy about it?
Some charities representing people at risk of Covid have raised concerns about taking away frequent testing for vulnerable people without symptoms. They said that testing has become a way which has enabled some people to return to their normal lives, despite being concerned abut the virus.
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of people have signed a petition calling on the Government to reinstate free tests.
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