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Covid is sweeping England once again, with cases having climbed to their highest level since the start of the year.

Up to one in 40 people are infected with the virus across the country, according to surveillance data. But as many as one in 17 are currently carrying it in the worst-hit areas of the country. 

Office for National Statistics (ONS) analysts estimate almost 1.7m Brits were carrying the virus on any given day in the week to March 13. This a jump of almost 14 per cent on the week before. 

Leading experts fear the outbreak will continue to pick up pace in the coming weeks as part of the virus’s natural cycle.

Some have, however, already called for the return of face masks.

Office for National Statistics (ONS) analysts estimate that almost 1.73million Brits were carrying the virus on any given day in the week to March 13. This a jump of almost 14 per cent on the week before, when approximately 1.52million Brits were estimated to be infected

Office for National Statistics (ONS) analysts estimate that almost 1.73million Brits were carrying the virus on any given day in the week to March 13. This a jump of almost 14 per cent on the week before, when approximately 1.52million Brits were estimated to be infected

GP surgeries in parts of the country have also started cancelling appointments because the uptick has left them with ‘exceptionally low’ staff levels.

Michelle Bowen, head of health surveillance dissemination at the ONS, 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.’

There are higher levels of uncertainty in the ONS’ latest estimates ‘because of lower numbers of samples received’, the statistics agency said. 

The ONS data, based on the random swabbing of around 100,000 Brits, suggests one in 40 people in England – some 1.49million (2.66 per cent) – were infected with Covid last week.

This was a rise on the 1.32million recorded in the previous week, up to March 7.  

Virus levels also rose in Scotland, with 136,200 (one in 40 or 2.59 per cent) people were thought to be carrying the virus, up from 105,100. 

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Some 74,500 people in Wales (one in 40, 2.41 per cent) were thought to be – a rise on the previous week’s 68,200. 

In Northern Ireland, which recorded data for the week ending March 7,  26,000 were thought to be infected (one in 70 people or 1.42 per cent), up from the 24,700 reported in the week ending February 28. 

‘For Northern Ireland, the reference week is the same as in our previous release, but estimates have been updated with additional test results received up to March 7, 2023,’ the ONS said. 

‘There were too few samples returned in Northern Ireland after March 7, 2023 to produce robust estimates.’

The North West recorded the highest Covid prevalence in England with an estimated 4.14 per cent of people or up to one in 17 infected with the virus. 

This was followed by the East Midlands at 3.36 per cent or up to one in 19 people. 

The North East of England and Yorkshire and The Humber also recorded a Covid prevalence of up to one in 20 individuals.  

The latest ONS Infection Survey Data comes just days after the ZOE Health Study revealed some 136,722 new symptomatic Covid cases were reported across the UK on March 20, 2023. 

Professor Tim Spector, the epidemiologist behind the ZOE Covid infection survey, said cold weather — which encourages people to mix indoors — and children are driving the rise.

According to the ZOE Health Study some 136,722 new symptomatic Covid cases were reported across the UK on March 20, 2023. It takes the total number of people currently predicted to have Covid in UK to above 1.5million, rising by around 300,000 in just a week

According to the ZOE Health Study some 136,722 new symptomatic Covid cases were reported across the UK on March 20, 2023. It takes the total number of people currently predicted to have Covid in UK to above 1.5million, rising by around 300,000 in just a week

GP surgeries in parts of the country have already started cancelling appointments because the uptick has left them with 'exceptionally low' staff levels. On March 21, the Montgomery-House Surgery in Bicester, Oxfordshire, said: 'We are currently experiencing high levels of Covid amongst our clinical team resulting in staff absence and reduced appointment capacity. 'On Friday 24 March, we will have exceptionally low numbers of GPs and will be offering urgent appointments only. 'Where possible, please submit repeat prescription requests on another day'

GP surgeries in parts of the country have already started cancelling appointments because the uptick has left them with ‘exceptionally low’ staff levels. On March 21, the Montgomery-House Surgery in Bicester, Oxfordshire, said: ‘We are currently experiencing high levels of Covid amongst our clinical team resulting in staff absence and reduced appointment capacity. ‘On Friday 24 March, we will have exceptionally low numbers of GPs and will be offering urgent appointments only. ‘Where possible, please submit repeat prescription requests on another day’

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Professor Danny Altmann, an immunologist at Imperial College London, also told MailOnline the UK was in a ‘rather serious situation’ because of the waning vaccine immunity coupled with new variants.

Many bouts of these Covid infections are ‘neither brief nor mild’, added Professor Altmann, who is a member of the notorious Independent Sage group that lobbied for a ‘zero Covid’ approach.

‘For my taste we’d be continuing to think about the mitigations,’ he said.

Latest hospital data also shows 1,189 people infected with Covid were admitted to hospitals in England on March 13.

It is the highest figure logged since the end of December and is not far off this winter’s peak of 1,376.

However, current admission levels are nowhere near levels seen earlier in the pandemic, when a high of 4,134 admissions were logged per day. 

Infections climbed as high as 3.7million last winter during the spread of the original Omicron variant — but this was topped a few months later, when the number reached a record 4.1million. 

The Government has insisted it will not revert back to pandemic-era measures unless a new doomsday variant emerges. 

But for months, health chiefs and experts have warned about a rise in cases and hospitalisations driven by the Omicron sub-variants Kraken (XBB.1.5) and Orthrus (CH.1.1).

Kraken was the dominant strain in the UK by the end of last month, causing 50.4 per cent of cases, according to ONS data, while Orthrus was behind at 19.7 per cent.

The Government commissioned graph shows the total number of patients in hospital who have Covid in England each day up to March 22, when 8,387 patients were reported to have the virus

The Government commissioned graph shows the total number of patients in hospital who have Covid in England each day up to March 22, when 8,387 patients were reported to have the virus

Hospital admissions for the virus have steadily increased in recent weeks. As of March 20, there were 1,019 admissions

Hospital admissions for the virus have steadily increased in recent weeks. As of March 20, there were 1,019 admissions

Latest Covid surveillance data from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) also revealed that cases appear to be highest in older people.

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However, confirmed ones rely on people taking tests and old people living in care homes are more likely to have regular swabs.

Despite rising cases, the ONS confirmed this week’s Covid surveillance data update is the final survey release, as the UKHSA ‘works to confirm its approach to surveillance’.

In the meantime, the ONS plans to continue working with survey participants to gather data on experiences of Covid, long Covid and other respiratory infections, ‘details of which will be announced in due course’, it added. 

The survey collected tests from households regardless of whether participants knew they had Covid, 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. 

Professor Mark Woolhouse, a professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Edinburgh, said: ‘Data were always crucial for navigating the safest path through the Covid 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.’

He added: ‘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 26. 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.’

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