Covid: Record 2.3 million people in UK had coronavirus in week before Christmas

ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen reports on the fact levels of Covid are higher than at any other point in the pandemic

A record number of people in the UK had Covid-19 in the week before Christmas, the latest figures show.

An estimated 2.3 million people had coronavirus in the week ending December 23, up from 1.4 million in the week to December 16 and the highest number since comparable figures began in autumn 2020, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

Figures from the ONS also estimate that one in 25 people in private households (these figures do not include people in hospital or in care homes) in England had coronavirus during this week. This is up from one in 45 in the week to December 16.

One in 25 is the equivalent of about two million people and is the highest number since the ONS began estimating infection levels for England in May 2020.

The figure was even higher in London where around one in 15 people was likely to test positive for Covid in the week to December 23, the highest proportion for any region in England.

North-east England had the lowest proportion, at around one in 45.

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In the same week, the ONS estimated that in Wales one in 40 people had Covid, equalling the previous record set in October.

In Northern Ireland, the latest estimate is also one in 40, equalling the record set in mid-August.

For Scotland, the latest estimate is one in 40 and the highest since records began.

The latest ONS figures end on December 23, and since then the UK has repeatedly its own Covid records, with a new high of 189,213 cases reported in the 24 hours to 9am on Thursday.

As cases continue to spiral - driven partly by the new, highly contagious Omicron variant - there are fears cases could be going unrecorded with no lateral flow tests available to order online in the UK and pharmacies quickly running out of stocks, while the availability of PCR test slots is also intermittent.

Pressure is growing on the government to do more to tackle the test shortages, with calls for NHS staff to be prioritised amid surging numbers of patients in hospital with the virus.

While the number of people in hospital with Covid is rising, the proportion of patients being treated primarily for coronavirus in England has dropped slightly.

Data from NHS England, published on Friday, shows that, of the 8,321 patients with coronavirus in hospital in England on December 28, 5,578 (67%) were being treated primarily for Covid.

This is down from 71% a week earlier and 74% at the start of December.

This fall is likely due to the fact that because Covid rates are so high in the community, if someone is admitted to hospital or in already due to a completely unrelated issue, they are more likely to have the virus or to catch it without requiring medical care for it.

In a statement on the latest infection figures, the ONS said that infections “compatible with Omicron” had “continued to increase rapidly” across the UK and that the new variant was now the most common one in England and Scotland”.

When estimating the level of infections among different age groups in England, the ONS said rates were highest for those between the age of two and school year six, and among 25 to 34-year-olds.

But infections among young children were “more likely to be compatible with the Delta variant”, while those among people aged 25 to 34 were more likely to be compatible with Omicron.

The number of Covid-19 infections in the UK, which is estimated every week by the ONS, is not the same as the number of new cases of coronavirus which are reported every day by the government.

On Thursday, the Department of Health and Social Care reported the highest number of new infections in a 24-hour period since records began, with 189,213 infections recorded.

The number of infections from the ONS provides a snapshot of the prevalence of Covid-19 within the entire community population of the UK, and estimates the percentage of people who are likely to test positive for the virus at any one point – regardless of when they caught the virus, how long they have had it, and whether they have symptoms.

It is based on a sample of swab tests collected from households across the UK.

By contrast, the number of cases of Covid-19 reported each day by the government includes only those people who have newly tested positive for the virus, and is therefore affected by how many people are coming forward for tests, or who are taking a test because they know they have coronavirus symptoms.