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The percentage of people testing positive for coronavirus in the UK has levelled off, the latest data reveals, but remains at a high level.
According to data published on Friday from the Office for National Statistics, which conducts a survey based on swabs from randomly selected households, about 1 in 55 people in the community in England had Covid in the week ending 23 January – the same proportion as was reported last week, down from 1 in 50 around the start of the year.
“The percentage of people testing positive remains high in England and is similar to last week’s estimate,” the team report.
The ONS says the positivity rate also appears to have levelled off throughout the UK, with 1 in 70 people in Wales, 1 in 50 in Northern Ireland and 1 in 110 people in Scotland found to have Covid in the most recent week.
The latest R figure, which reflects the average number of people an infected person passes the virus to, was revealed by the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) to be between 0.7 and 1.1 for the UK and between 0.7 and 1.0 for England, reflecting the situation over the past few weeks. If R is above 1 the epidemic is growing; below 1 it is shrinking.
The ONS study revealed regional variations around England, with some regions showing a slight decline in the percentage of people testing positive in the most recent week, and others levelling off.
The positivity rate remains highest in London, with 1 in 35 people thought to have had Covid in the most recent week, the same figure as the week before. The rate is now lowest in Yorkshire and the Humber.
Meanwhile, the percentage of cases thought to involve the new, highly contagious UK variant were stable or declining across the country, with the exception of the east Midlands.
The ONS findings of a slow overall decline in positivity rate in England chime with another population survey released earlier this week from researchers at Imperial College London, called React-1, which found that cases had remained level, or even risen slightly between 6 and 15 January with only a slight decline apparent in the data to 22 January.
Overall, for the whole period studied, the React-1 team estimated that about 1 in 64 people had coronavirus, while they estimated that the R number was about 0.98.
The picture is very different to that gleaned from the government’s coronavirus dashboard, which shows a sharp downturn in the number of people testing positive since early January – this data is based on tests largely carried out among people with symptoms.
One explanation could be that the ONS survey is picking up older infections than tests among people coming forward with symptoms. Changes in whether people are going for tests, or choosing to take part in surveys, might also, in part, explain the difference. Prof Graham Medley of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, and a member of Sage, told the Guardian another possibility was that pillar 2 testing, reflected on the government dashboard figures, included a growing use of lateral flow tests rather than PCR tests.
“Ideally these two data streams would be separate, but even if separate, the two testing protocols will interfere with each other. For example, if people with symptoms test negative on the less sensitive LFT they might not seek a PCR test, resulting in a reduction in ascertainment,” he said. “There are other explanations, and the continued increase in prevalence of the new variant is an additional complication.”
Medley said the disparity merited care.
“The interpretation is that we should be cautious in regarding the reduction in diagnosed cases as definitive evidence that the epidemic is decreasing,” he said.
Meanwhile the Covid symptom study lead by researchers at King’s College London, which is also based on swabs largely from people with symptoms, showed cases had fallen 60% since the start of the year, but the most recent data suggests this decline may have slowed, with an estimated R value for the UK of 0.9.
“I think the next week is going to be critical to see whether we can keep it going down or we have a problem and it really does go back to 1, when we have still got too many cases around to open up anything,” said Prof Tim Spector of King’s College London, who leads the work.
Prof Steven Riley, a researcher behind the React study and a member of the government’s Scientific Pandemic Influenza Group on Modelling, said: “If infections were falling as fast as pillar 1 and 2 data suggests, we might have expected a faster decline in hospitalisations.”
While vaccinations are expected to eventually reduce hospital admissions and deaths, the situation for the NHS remains very difficult.
“In the short term we need the hospitalisations to come down more quickly to release pressure on the NHS,” he said.
Source: The Guardian
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