This Friday sees the final release of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) weekly Covid Infection Survey. This data has been a vital resource for GPs, clinicians, politicians and the media since it was initiated in April 2020.
Widely acknowledged as the ‘Gold Standard’, it has provided an invaluable source of information every Friday, revealing vital information on the latest infection rates, the arrival of new strains and how Covid is impacting different age groups and regions.
A leading testing expert says axing this vital resource, just as we are scrapping the testing of people arriving from China and while Covid levels remain stubbornly persistent, is breathtakingly short-sighted.
Dr Quinton Fivelman PhD, Chief Scientific Officer at London Medical Laboratory, says: ‘Cancelling this vital resource now is an incredibly blinkered decision. The data provided by the weekly Covid Infection Survey has been internationally admired as an invaluable source of information about how quickly new strains can arrive and sweep across a country.
‘The UK’s Health Security Agency (UKHSA) itself acknowledges: “The results have helped to provide vital weekly data on virus positivity levels across the UK, details on new variants, the characteristics of those who had the virus and their antibody levels and details of Long Covid prevalence. This helped develop an understanding of Covid-19 and inform government decision-making throughout the pandemic.”
‘Despite the vital importance of the Survey, in January it was revealed that funding for the scheme would not be continued beyond March. This begs the question: has it become something of an “inconvenient truth” for politicians anxious to put Covid behind them, regardless of the potential danger of new strains ahead?
‘Last year, following a public outcry, the Government backtracked on its first bid to axe the Survey. Scrapping it now comes at a time when, according to the Survey’s own data, 1,322,000 people in England – 2.36% of the population or around 1 in 40 people – currently have the virus.
‘In Wales, the estimated number of people testing positive for Covid-19 is 68,200 – 2.21% of the population or around 1 in 45 people. In Northern Ireland, the estimated number of people testing positive is 26,600 – 1.45% of the population or around 1 in 70 people. In Scotland, the estimated number of people testing positive is 105,100 – 2% of the population or around 1 in 50 people.
‘These figures show Covid is still a significant problem. The estimated percentage of people testing positive for Covid increased in the Northwest, Yorkshire and The Humber last week, and cases in people aged over 70 across the UK also climbed. From next week, this kind of vital information will no longer be collected.
‘People are still dying and being hospitalised every week because of this virus, and Long Covid currently appears just as likely to be caused by Omicron-variant infections as any previous strain of the virus.
‘Tellingly, the Government’s statement announcing its closure says: “The approach to Covid-19 surveillance is being actively reviewed by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) to ensure it is proportionate, cost effective and considered alongside how we monitor a range of other infectious diseases that present a similar risk to the public’s health.”
‘Cost effectiveness should not be a key factor in the continuation of this survey. Covid-19 is not a bad cold nor even the flu; it is a new virus whose longer-term impact we are still coming to terms with.
‘The best way to guard against catching new Covid variants and developing Long Covid symptoms is by being fully vaccinated. If anyone is concerned about their current level of Covid antibodies, the new generation Covid antibody blood test available from London Medical Laboratory is highly accurate, quick and simple to carry out. This test can be taken at home through the post, or at one of the many drop-in clinics that offer it across London and nationwide in over 95 selected pharmacies and health stores.