Coronavirus infection rates are falling rapidly across the UK, easing pressure on the strained health service, according to official data.
About 3.7mn people were infected with Covid-19 in the week ending April 16, according to Office for National Statistics estimates published on Friday.
The latest infection figures are 15 per cent lower than those recorded a week earlier and nearly 25 per cent down on the peak of the Omicron BA.2 wave recorded in late March, which marked a record high for the pandemic.
Infections are falling in every UK nation for the first time since late January. In England, one in 17 people had coronavirus in the week to April 16, while in Scotland one in 19 people were infected. Infection rates were highest in Wales, where one in 15 citizens had the virus. In Northern Ireland, one in 30 people were infected.
Hospital pressures are also easing after the NHS had to contend with its toughest run-up to Easter on record. Some 16,447 Covid patients were in UK hospitals on April 21, down about 20 per cent from the peak recorded a fortnight earlier.
“We continue to see a welcome decrease in infections across England, Northern Ireland and Scotland in today’s data,” said Duncan Cook, deputy director for the ONS infection survey. “For the first time in several weeks, we are also seeing a decrease in Wales too.”
“It’s pretty clear now that we’re beyond the peak,” said John Edmunds, professor of infectious disease modelling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. “Part of this will be due to Easter, when people go to work less and there’s no school, so you’d get a contraction in infections from those shifts in mixing regardless, but the BA.2 wave was already contracting before the Easter break, especially among younger groups.”
Cook added that “despite the decrease in infections, it’s important to note that levels remain high”.
The recent surge in Covid infections and hospitalisations piled pressure in recent weeks on the NHS, which was already strained by efforts to tackle record waiting lists for non-urgent care that had built up during the pandemic.
The number of vacant NHS hospital beds in England fell to its lowest level since the start of the Covid-19 crisis in mid-April, according to Financial Times analysis of official data. In response to the pressures, healthcare leaders called for the government to bring back indoor mask mandates in England earlier this month.
But Professor Oliver Johnson, director of the Institute for Statistical Science at Bristol university, said there was a “noticeable downslope” in admissions figures in the past week, adding that he did “not see a fundamental reason why it can’t go down below 500 hospitalisations a day” in the months ahead.
Daily hospitalisations averaged 1,425 Covid admissions a day in England in the week to April 20, down 24 per cent from the week before.
Separate data, published by the ONS on Friday, estimated that 70 per cent of people in England have been infected with Covid at least once between April 2020 and February this year. About 51 per cent of Scots were infected between September 2020 and February this year.