The final official estimates of COVID-19 in the UK show infections in England have climbed to their highest level since the start of the year. The trend in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is uncertain, though there are signs the virus is continuing to become more prevalent.
It is the last time that regular estimates of coronavirus are being published, as the long-running infection survey – dubbed the "envy of the world" for its success in tracking the virus – has been halted. Any further monitoring of COVID-19 will be announced after a review to ensure it is "cost effective", according to the UK Health Security Agency.
An estimated 1.5 million people in private households in England were likely to have had coronavirus in the week ending March 13, up from 1.3 million in the previous week, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). It is the highest total for England since the week to January 3, when the total stood at 2.2 million.
There is greater uncertainty in the latest figures for Scotland and Wales due to a low number of samples received by the ONS, while too few samples were returned in Northern Ireland to produce a new estimate. Some 136,200 people in Scotland were likely to have coronavirus in the week to March 13, or around 1 in 40, compared with 105,100 or 1 in 50 the previous week. The latest estimate for Wales is 74,500, or 1 in 40, compared with 68,200 or 1 in 45.
Michelle Bowen, ONS head of health surveillance dissemination, said: "This week’s data show infections are rising in England; however, the trend is uncertain across the rest of the UK.
"In England, positivity increased in children and those aged 50 and over.
"The North West, East Midlands and South East of England all saw infections increase, though the trend is uncertain in all other regions."
Final ONS Infection Survey
The infection survey has run continuously for nearly 3 years, providing valuable weekly data on levels of COVID-19 across the UK and allowing successive waves of the virus to be identified and tracked. It has also supplied crucial information on the emergence of new variants, antibody levels and long COVID.
The survey collected tests from households regardless of whether participants knew they had COVID-19, or if they were reporting results to the NHS, meaning it provided a snapshot of the true spread of the virus, which was often underestimated by Government figures.
Sir David Spiegelhalter, emeritus professor of statistics at Cambridge University and chair of the advisory board for the survey, said it had been an "extraordinary achievement" that has provided "vital evidence of great value both to national policy and international scientific understanding".
"There is a general consensus that the survey has been a world-leading demonstration of how health surveillance can best be done," he said. "It is expensive, and this has led to it being paused, but the participant group is not being disbanded and a survey should be able to ramp up when necessary.
"Meanwhile there are important lessons to be learned for future emergencies, both by us and every other country. The survey has been the envy of the world and is a jewel in the crown of UK science."
'Most Trusted and Reliable Source' on Levels of Infection
The survey was rolled out across the UK during Spring 2020, just after the first wave of the virus. It has measured every wave since then, with its figures revealing the biggest wave came in spring 2022 when weekly infections hit 4.9 million, followed by winter 2021/22, which peaked at 4.3 million. In recent months, the survey has helped track the scale and progress of the Christmas 2022 wave, which peaked at nearly 3 million infections, as well as the latest rise in prevalence.
Prof Mark Woolhouse, from the department of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, also lamented the survey's passing, telling Science Media Centre: "Data were always crucial for navigating the safest path through the COVID-19 pandemic. The ONS survey became one of the most trusted and reliable sources of surveillance data on levels of infection, providing key information that informed public health policy.
"The ONS performed active surveillance – making direct requests for individuals to participate – rather than the passive reporting that generated the daily case numbers shown on our TV screens during the height of the pandemic. Active surveillance is slower – the ONS survey was 1-2 weeks behind the daily numbers – but it is considered more representative of the true situation. An important observation was that ONS data consistently showed that the numbers of people infected were at least twice as high as was being reported at a national level.
"Despite its value to public health, active surveillance of this kind is expensive and is not routinely performed outside of a current health emergency. It is nevertheless vital that our capacity to perform this kind of survey is maintained and is available when needed."
"In 2020, the ONS survey was not launched until April 26th. By that date, the UK had been in lockdown for over a month and the first wave was already peaking. If the ONS survey had been rolled out much earlier – ideally in the first half of February – then we would have had more accurate information in those crucial early weeks and would likely have made better, and perhaps different, decisions about how to respond. We will need the capacity to ramp up active surveillance much more quickly when the next epidemic arrives. This must be a top priority for our pandemic preparedness planning."
The halting of the survey comes as the rate of hospital admissions in England for people with COVID-19 rose for the third week in a row, to 10.6 per 100,000 people in the 7 days to March 19 – the highest level since the start of January. In the absence of official estimates of COVID-19, hospital admissions will be one of the few remaining sources of data to give any sense of the spread of the virus, along with death registrations.
The final figures from the infection survey show the percentage of people aged 70 and over in England likely to test positive for COVID-19 is estimated to be 4.5%, up from 3.1% a week earlier. This is the highest positivity for any age group. The rate is up from 1.4% to 2.1% among children in school years 7 to 11.
This article contains information from PA Media