A record one in 15 people were infected with Covid on New Year’s Eve in England, the country’s gold-standard surveillance study has found.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated 3.3million people were infected on any given day during the week to December 31, up more than 60 per cent on the previous spell.
Before the emergence of Omicron, that figure rarely rose above 1million, but the ultra-transmissible variant has pushed the country’s infection rate to astronomical levels.
The super-mild strain has, however, created a huge disparity between cases, hospitalisations and deaths, with admissions still a third of the level of previous peaks and fatalities 10 times lower.
A shocking one in 10 Londoners were estimated to have Covid on New Year’s Eve but the ONS said there were ‘early signs’ that infections had peaked in the capital, which has been hit hardest by Omicron.
The ONS’ weekly infection survey is regarded as the most reliable indicator of the UK’s outbreak because it uses random sampling of around 100,000 people, rather than relying on people coming forward to be tested.
The report, used by ministers to guide Covid policy, is normally published on Friday — but its release was moved while infections run at unprecedented levels.
Today’s findings show that around one in 20 people had the virus by New Year’s Eve in Wales and Scotland, both up from one in 40. In Northern Ireland, prevalence has increased from one in 40 to one in 25. In total, an estimated 3.7million people in all four UK nations had Covid in the most recent week.
It came as the Government today announced it is ditching follow-up PCRs for asymptomatic Covid sufferers who test positive on lateral flow in response to the extraordinary demand for swabs.
And with Omicron causing far fewer hospitalisations and deaths, the UK is now facing a self-isolation crisis that threatens to paralyse the economy and disrupt vital services. A million Britons are currently stuck in quarantine.
Around a dozen NHS trusts in England have signalled that they may be unable to provide vital care in the coming weeks because so many medics are off isolating.
The Office for National Statistics (ONS) estimated a record 3.27million people in England were infected on any given day in the week to December 31, up more than 60 per cent on the previous week
Chief ONS analyst Sarah Crofts said: ‘We continue to see infections across the UK increase, with Omicron now the dominant variant across all four nations.
‘There are early signs of a potential slowing of infections in London in the days before New Year’s Eve. However, it is too early to suggest this is a change in trend overall. The data continues to change rapidly, and we will continue to monitor the situation closely.
A sign of what’s to come for Britain? Top South African doctor says Omicron wave has ‘completely subsided’
South Africa’s Omicron wave has completely collapsed and the country has reached the ‘turning point in the pandemic’, a doctor on the frontline in Johannesburg claimed today amid growing hopes that Britain’s outbreak will also be short-lived.
Professor Shabir Madhi, a vaccine expert at the University of the Witwatersrand, said the variant was ‘very much subsiding’ and had already ‘pretty much subsided’ in Gauteng — the first province to fall victim to the extremely-infectious variant.
He estimated up to 50 per cent of the country’s 58.8million people caught Omicron since it first emerged, despite just 500,000 infections being recorded since the strain was first spotted on November 23.
While Covid infections soared to an ‘unprecedented’ level, Professor Madhi said there was a ‘complete uncoupling’ of hospitalisation and deaths. Figures show hospitalisations barely reached a third of rates seen in previous peaks, while fatalities stayed 10 times lower.
Professor Madhi told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I think we are in a good place in South Africa and I think we’ve reached the turning point in this pandemic.’
It comes after another 8,078 cases were recorded in South Africa yesterday, a rise of 12 per cent in a week, after tumbling for 17 days in a row. Officially, daily cases peaked at nearly 27,000 on December 15.
Hospital admissions also rose 8 per cent with 309 reported, however they have also been trending downwards for the past fortnight. Deaths — the biggest lagging indicator — rose to 139, the highest since the Omicron wave took off. But they are still a far cry from the 600 per day at the peak of the Delta wave.
The shrinking wave comes despite only a quarter of South Africans being double-jabbed. There is growing hope that Britain’s variant-fuelled outbreak will follow a similar trajectory, where more than 70 per cent have had two jabs and half have had three.
Separate data from the Government’s dashboard – based on daily centralised testing – shows that while Covid cases are no longer rising in young and middle-aged Londoners, they are going up in over-60s, who are most vulnerable to the virus.
Sir Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance last night said it was too early to say London’s crisis had peaked because hospital pressures were likely to worsen over the coming weeks because of the trajectory.
However, other experts expect the trend in over-60s to follow that of younger adults and begin falling in the next week or so, mirroring the trend in South Africa — the first country in the world to fall victim to the variant, where infections are now in freefall.
Professor David Livermore, a medical microbiologist at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline that infection numbers are ‘bumpy’ over the festive period because of reporting delays and fewer testes being carried out.
He said: ‘Nonetheless, the rate is the under-60s does look to have peaked and be falling convincingly.
‘This pattern of a short sharp peak is what you would expect from Omicron’s increased transmissibility [and] it also tallies with South African experience.’
Growth rates already suggest that the infection rate in older people is slowing down. Professor Livermore added: ‘I would expect a similar peak and drop off, within a week or thereabouts, among the over 60s.’
Overall, cases in London fell 10 per cent from 27,820 on December 23 to 25,038, the latest date official statistics are available for.
Government data showed the number of positive tests had dropped in the run up to Christmas, with a slight blip in the days immediately following festivities, before the trend resumed.
And MailOnline yesterday revealed cases were now falling in two-thirds of London’s neighbourhoods.
It prompted ‘Professor Lockdown’ Neil Ferguson — an influential No10 adviser whose grim death projections spooked ministers into adopting draconian restrictions back in spring 2020 — to say he is ‘cautiously optimistic’ that the capital’s cases were plateauing, and could fall nationally within as little as a week.
But the raw case numbers are unreliable because fewer tests are being carried out and the positivity rate shows no signs of slowing down yet.
However, separate figures show hospitalisation rates are already falling in London.
Ministers are believed to be watching admissions in the capital closely, with 400-a-day thought to be a tipping point that requires nationwide intervention, given that London has acted as the canary in the coalmine for the UK’s Omicron crisis.
Latest data shows daily hospital admissions are falling in the capital, dipping 7.22 per cent from 374 on December 26 to 347 on January 2, the latest date data is available for. They were only above 400 for four days.
Meanwhile, the number of infected patients in hospital rose by nearly a third over the course of a week to 3,993 yesterday, roughly half the level seen during the darkest days of the second wave.
UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) figures show Covid cases in Omicron hotspot London are now only going up in people aged 60 and above. Graph shows: The case rate per 100,000 in people aged 60 and above (yellow line) and under-60 (red line). Cases have started to drop in under-60s, though the rate still remains above the more vulnerable older age groups
UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) figures show confirmed infections have fallen week-on-week on seven of the eight days leading up to December 30 – the latest date regional data is available for – in people aged 59 or below. Graph shows: The week-on-week rate of growth in average cases in under-60s (red line) and people aged 60 and above (yellow line). Cases are falling in under-60s and the rate of growth is slowing in over-60s
Graph shows: Covid cases across the capital from the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. Official testing data shows there was a drop in the run-up to Christmas
Critics argue the figures are over-inflated because they include ‘incidental’ cases, meaning people who’ve been admitted for unrelated problems like a broken leg.
Critical care bed occupancy — which paints a clearer picture about the true state of the Omicron outbreak — has barely risen over the same time-frame, according to statistics proving the fight against Covid is significantly different to last year.
Now one of No10’s gloomy modellers backs Boris’ plan to ‘ride out’ Omicron wave
One of the Government’s leading Covid modellers today appeared to back Boris Johnson’s plan to ‘ride out’ the Omicron wave as he claimed that imposing more restrictions now would have little effect.
Dr Mike Tildesley, a member of the Scientific Pandemic Influenza Modelling group (Spi-M) which feeds into SAGE, said ‘we’re starting to see things turn around’.
He claimed that if measures had been imposed before Christmas they may have reduced the number of infections but admitted restrictions would be ‘much less effective’ now the outbreak may be peaking. However, he refused to rule out needing more curbs if the wave starts to grow again.
Dr Tildesley pointed to Omicron hotspot London, where infections and hospital admissions appear to be flatlining already, as reason to be optimistic about how the epidemic will play out in the rest of the country.
There were 347 admissions in the capital on New Year’s Day, the latest day with data, down 7 per cent compared to the previous week. It is the second day in a row admissions have fallen week-on-week.
It comes after the Prime Minister told a Downing Street press conference last night that England had a ‘chance to ride out this Omicron wave without shutting down our country’ because it is milder than older strains.
While daily infections are running at record levels — 218,000 people tested positive yesterday — the number of Covid patients in hospital is still a fraction of previous peaks.
There are 15,000 Covid inpatients now compared to nearly 40,000 last January and about a third of current patients are not primarily sick with the virus. Fewer sufferers are also requiring ventilation.
Dr Tildesley, from the University of Warwick, told BBC Breakfast: ‘It does look like we may be in a situation where – we’re getting cases very, very high – but there’s early evidence that things might be turning around in London.
‘The problem, of course, is that if you’re thinking about introducing controls, once you’re beyond the peak of the infection, then that has much less effect.
‘So, our modelling work that was done before Christmas did suggest that early interventions would have had some impact in reducing the number of cases and reducing the pressure on hospitals.
‘But at this point, talking in the early new year when we’re starting to see things turn around, the impact of any interventions being introduced now would be that much less effective.’
The number of patients on mechanical ventilator beds remains low, rising 13 per cent to 245 yesterday, compared to highs of more than 1,200 last January.
But there are fears this could increase now that cases are only going up in over-60s, even if there are overall fewer cases being detected currently.
Meanwhile, it emerged today that confirmatory PCR tests will no longer be needed for people testing positive for Covid on a lateral flow.
Previous guidance to back up positive rapid tests with more accurate lab results will be removed from January 11. The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) announced the move amid sky-high case numbers across England.
The move will free up capacity in laboratories for PCR tests for those who have Covid symptoms.
People who receive a positive result on a lateral flow device (LFD) will be required to self-isolate immediately for seven days, without requiring PCR confirmation.
UKHSA said this is a temporary measure while Covid rates remain high across the UK. Officials said that while levels of Covid are high, the ‘vast majority’ of people with positive LFD results can be confident they have the virus.
They estimated the number of ‘false positives’ results, where people without the virus get a positive LFD result, are as low as three in 10,000.
However with just under 1.5million of LFD tests being conducted across the UK every day this could lead to thousands of people who don’t have Covid having to isolate.
People who have Covid symptoms, such as a high temperature, a new, continuous cough, or change in sense of taste and/or smell should still get a PCR test, UKHSA said.
UKHSA chief executive Dr Jenny Harries said: ‘While cases of Covid continue to rise, this tried-and-tested approach means that LFDs can be used confidently to indicate Covid-19 infection without the need for PCR confirmation.
‘It remains really important that anyone who experiences Covid symptoms self-isolates immediately. They should also order a PCR test on gov.uk, or by phoning 119.
‘I’m really grateful to the public and all of our critical workers who continue to test regularly and self-isolate when necessary, along with other practical and important public health behaviours, as this is the most effective way of stopping the spread of the virus and keeping our friends, families and communities safe.’
UKHSA have said lateral flow devices are 80 per cent effective at finding people with high viral loads of Covid.
Health chiefs said the change would be kept in place until Covid prevalence dips below one per cent.
Prevalence last week was around four per cent according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) infection survey.
Experts hailed the move as sensible given current case numbers, arguing PCR confirmations ‘waste time’ during infection surges.
SAGE member John Edmunds, a modeller at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said: ‘This change makes a lot of sense.
‘When the prevalence is high — and it is incredibly high at the moment — almost everyone who tests positive with a lateral flow test will be a true positive.
‘There is really no need to confirm this with a PCR, a step that not only wastes time but costs a lot of money and uses up laboratory resources that could be better used elsewhere. There are down sides to this change.
‘We would have slightly less information on the relative prevalence of the different variants circulating in the community, as PCR swabs undergo genotyping and sequencing, and the daily number of confirmed cases may need more careful interpretation.
‘Overall, though, I think that these downsides are worth it.’
Sir David Spiegelhalter, chair of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at the University of Cambridge, said: ‘This seems a sensible move.
‘We argued back in October that it seemed fairly pointless to do a confirmatory PCR after a positive lateral flow test.
‘This is even more true now: with current infection rates, a positive LFD followed by a negative PCR would still mean it was very likely that you were carrying the virus.
‘PCRs are useful for surveillance, sequencing and have legal status, but if we want to focus on isolating people who are infectious, then LFDs may be adequate. But they need to be reported.’
Dr Hayley Jones senior lecturer in medical statistics at the University of Bristol said assuming a positive LFD test meant you had Covid was ‘sensible’ but urged people not to believe that the opposite meant they were virus-free.
‘At current high levels of infection in the population, it’s sensible to assume you’re infectious if you have a positive lateral flow test result, without a “confirmatory” PCR,’ she said.
‘But it’s crucial to remember that the reverse is not true: a negative lateral flow result doesn’t guarantee that you don’t have Covid or that you’re not infectious, so it remains important to get a PCR test if you have symptoms regardless of a negative lateral flow result.’
However some have slammed the decision, arguing the drop in PCR tests, which being processed in a lab can reveal more information about the Covid virus, could lead to a new variant emerging in the UK undetected.