Details have been announced of a new study to monitor levels of COVID-19 in the UK population this winter.
The Winter COVID-19 Infection Study will be run by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and the Office for National Statistics (ONS) and gather data between November and March.
The study will be a scaled-down version of the "gold standard" Coronavirus Infection Survey (CIS), commissioned by the UKHSA and delivered by the ONS in partnership with the universities of Oxford and Manchester. The survey, which estimated the percentage of people in the UK testing positive for COVID-19 in private residential households, gathered and analysed more than 11.5 million swab tests and three million blood tests over 3 years from April 2020.
The CIS was wound up in March 2023, ending a period of enhanced pandemic surveillance.
Professor Steven Riley, director general of data, analytics, and surveillance at the UKHSA, said: "The data we collected alongside the ONS during the pandemic provided us with a huge amount of valuable insight, so I am delighted that we are able to work together again to keep policymakers and the wider public informed in the coming months."
Analysis of Weekly Lateral Flow Device Sampling
The UKHSA's existing surveillance system monitors hospital admission rates for COVID in England, but the Agency said the new study would allow it to detect changes in the infection hospitalisation rate, which requires accurate measurement of infection levels in the community.
The new study will involve up to 32,000 lateral flow tests being carried out each week among a broadly representative sample of the population. The data will enable the UKHSA to assess the potential for increased demand on health services due to changes in the way the virus is spreading, such as any new variants of SARS-CoV-2.
Preliminary analyses from tests performed at the UKHSA's laboratory at Porton Down suggested there was no reduction in lateral flow device sensitivity for detecting the BA.2.86 variant compared with previous variants, the Agency stated.
Emma Rourke, deputy national statistician at the ONS, said: "There remains a need for robust data to help us continue to understand the virus and its effects during the winter months.
“As well as working to provide UKHSA with regular rates of positivity, we will also be looking at analysis of symptoms, risk factors, and the impact of respiratory infections, including long COVID, as part of this important surveillance."
The daily count of people testing positive for COVID-19 in hospital in England has been increasing since July. It stood at 3087 in the week ending 24 September against a 2023 low of 1163 in June, but well short of the 7672 recorded for September last year.