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Covid infections rise in England ahead of Christmas party season

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Health leaders have warned of increasing strain on NHS services as the official data released on Friday showed a rise in Covid-19 infections in England and Northern Ireland, even before the Christmas party season gets fully under way.

Positive cases rose in England in the week ending November 26, the second consecutive weekly increase, and were higher in Northern Ireland for the first time in a month, according to the coronavirus infection survey published by the Office for National Statistics. The outlook was uncertain in Scotland and Wales, and some English regions.

Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, which represents health organisations in England, said leaders across the NHS were closely monitoring infection rates. She noted that hospital admissions had also risen for a second week in a row.

Any further rises in hospitalisations from the virus “will continue to pile the pressure on the NHS, which is already coming under severe strain across every part of the system”, Deakin said, noting that November was already the busiest month on record for ambulance and emergency care services.

“Increases in flu, norovirus, diarrhoea and vomiting bugs are taking their toll on hospital capacity, with bed occupancy above levels considered safe,” she said.

With the Christmas party season now getting into full swing, she urged everyone eligible to get a Covid-19 booster or flu vaccine to do so as soon as possible. That would reduce the risk of serious illness for individuals “while also helping health services deal with backlogs and major operational pressures during what is expected to be the toughest winter on record”, she added.

The ONS survey showed that in England about one in 60 people, or about 1.73 per cent of the population, tested positive for Covid-19 in the week ending November 26. This compared with about 1.6 per cent a week earlier, although the proportion infected was unchanged at one in 60.

In Northern Ireland, about one in 50 people, or 2 per cent of the population, were infected, compared with one in 65 a week earlier. In Wales, around one in 70 were infected, compared with 1 in 75 people the week before. In Scotland, one in 60 tested positive, unchanged from the week before. The latest numbers equated to 1.68 per cent of Scotland’s population, from 1.73 per cent a week earlier.

Experts suggested a rise in infections at this time of year was to be expected and that the spread was not yet a cause for concern. Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at the Open University, said: “Covid never went away, we’re going into winter, and it’s getting colder.” 

But the increase in infection was not that big, he said. “In fact infections in England are at about the level that they were almost exactly a year ago, when most people, including me, were feeling pretty good about the Covid situation.” Shortly afterwards, the UK was hit with a surge in cases driven by the Omicron variant, he noted.

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