Ending of free tests will drive up transmission warns government advisor Sir Patrick Vallance as COVID case rates show further increase

The UK’s rocketing coronavirus rates are now beginning to slow, official figures show, but there are warnings that the withdrawal of free testing will drive up transmission rates.

There were 605,313 cases in the week ending March 24, just six per cent higher than the week before - an indication that the latest wave may soon peak.

But this nationwide picture disguises huge regional variations and the government's chief scientific advisor, Sir Patrick Vallance said the virus "is not going away" and that there was a "lumpy and bumpy" road before it becomes endemic in the population with the threat of new variants which could be more severe than Omicron.

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At a regional level, the North East of England has seen case rates rise by a third (33 per cent) in just a week, to 775 cases per 100,000 residents and the second highest weekly rise was in Yorkshire and the Humber, which saw case rates rise by 25 per cent in a week, to 742 cases per 100,000 residents.

In Yorkshire, Wakefield saw cases double by half within a week as the number of new cases, based on tests taken between March 18 and 24, was 2455. This is compared to 1635 positive tests recorded for March 11 to 17 - an increase of 50.2 per cent.

Calderdale was the second highest increase for Yorkshire and The Humber with 1372 tests for March 18 to 24 and 954 for the previous week. Barnsley recorded 1835 cases for March 18 to 24 which was a 39.1 per cent increase on the 1319 cases for March 11 to 17.

Ryedale, which last week was one of the region's lowest affected areas for COVID cases, saw a 34 per cent increase in cases from March 11 to 17 (406) to March 18 to 24 (546). Rotherham saw 503 extra cases this week with figures showing a 33.8 per cent increase between the 1490 tests for March 11 to 17 and 1993 for March 18 to 24.

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Speaking to the Science and Technology Committee on Wednesday, Sir Patrick said: "We've got very high levels of infection at the moment, as indeed many other countries. It is very important that actually, at the moment the realised severity, because of vaccines and other things, is being kept under control.

"I think the numbers of infections are beginning to turn so we may be quite close to, or at, the peak and it may start coming down shortly. But I expect to see further hospitalisations because of the lag time and further deaths with it, so that is the consequence of the high levels of infection rates."

"It's not surprising that we were where we are now in terms of rates because behaviour is returning to normal. 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. There's no doubt that if you massively reduce testing across the population, precautionary behaviours are likely to decrease at the same time and that will then lead to increased transmission."

Scotland still had the highest overall case rate in the week to March 24, at 1,411 cases per 100,000 residents.

The current BA.2 wave has seen case rates hit the second highest level in the pandemic so far, after the Omicron wave of the past winter. Across the UK, hospitalisations are at about half the numbers seen at their peak, in January 2021, while the number of deaths is well below those seen before the vaccine rollout.

But high case rates, and the resulting absences, are still causing disruption in schools and hospitals. Lifting of many restrictions, waning effectiveness of boosters and the spread of the highly contagious BA.2 ‘stealth Omicron’ variant have all been touted as potential reasons for the current wave.