The number of people with Covid across the UK has hit a record high, as free testing for millions in England comes to an end.
Around 4.9 million people in the UK are estimated to have had the virus in the week ending March 26, up from 4.3 million in the previous week, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.
One in 13 people in England are estimated to have had Covid during that week, up from one in 16 the week before, and in Wales the figure is one in 14 people, up from one in 16 the week before. Both are record highs.
In Scotland the figure was one in 11, while it was one in 15 in Northern Ireland.
It comes as, from Friday, people in England need to turn to the high street for tests if they want them, unless they are classed as vulnerable.
Kara Steel, senior statistician for the ONS Covid-19 infection survey, said: “Infection levels remain high, with the highest levels recorded in our survey seen in England and Wales and notable increases among older age groups.
“The rapid rise continues to be fuelled by the growth of the Omicron BA.2 variant across the UK.”
Earlier, Professor Tim Spector from King’s College London, who runs the Zoe Covid tracking app, said the timing of the end of free testing “couldn’t really be worse”.
He said England was now in a situation of “having to rely on the public to actually do the right thing and get these tests themselves when they get sick”.
He told Times Radio that “if we’re not having free testing, let’s have a clear policy on how you would know that you’re infected, and therefore you can self-isolate.
“To do that, the government needs to admit that the symptoms of Covid have changed in the last two years, and that 80% of people now present with cold-like symptoms.
“And there should be a public health campaign to say at the moment, when your chances of having Covid are greater than a cold… test if you can afford it – [and] even if you can’t – assume you’ve got Covid.”
On Thursday, Health Secretary Sajid Javid said people must “learn to live with Covid” as campaigners criticised the end of free testing.
He told reporters: “We are one of the most open and free countries in the world now, and that’s because of decisions that we’ve taken as a country… and it is right also as we learn to live with Covid that we withdraw free testing – universally… if it’s not needed any more, but we focus those resources on the people that need it most. And that’s what we’re doing.”
But Carers UK and the Alzheimer’s Society criticised the move, with the latter saying it “risks gambling” with the lives of people living with dementia.
The Alzheimer’s Society has been campaigning to keep lateral flow tests free for all people visiting loved ones in care homes.
While free testing ends in England, it will continue during April in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and until the summer in Wales.
The most recent data shows there were 15,632 people in hospital in England with Covid-19 as of Wednesday, up 18% week on week and the highest since January 19.