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Hundreds of thousands of COVID cases in England are now being missed by the government's daily infection figures, according to analysis of the latest data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
Cases soared by roughly a million in a week in the UK, largely down to the rapid spread of the BA.2 Omicron variant, the ONS weekly infection survey released on Friday shows.
Cases rose sharply across most of the UK and are nearing record levels in England, while both Scotland and Wales have reached an all-time high.
Across the UK as a whole, 4.26 million people were likely to have had coronavirus last week – just short of the 4.30 million in the first week of 2022, which was the highest total since estimates began.
While infections are soaring, tests are now failing to pick up the vast majority of cases.
The ONS report, considered the gold standard in monitoring the prevalence of COVID in the community, estimates that 421,800 were infected with COVID on 9 March, the most recent date for which daily data are available.
This compares to the 55,372 infections reported by the government on the same day.
The ONS infection survey sees researchers carry out tests on people in private households across the country, with the data used to predict the amount of people who have the virus.
The study paints a more accurate picture than the government’s daily case figures, which only show positive results from PCR and lateral flow tests submitted to laboratories.
Prof Kevin McConway, emeritus professor of applied statistics at The Open University, said the major disparities between the two data sets show "exactly why we need the ONS survey".
“I suspect that this change in the relationship between the two sets of figures is largely because the number of people being tested routinely, who provide the [government] figures, has fallen a lot since the start of 2022.
"If people aren’t being tested, or aren’t reporting the results, then the trends in [government] case rates aren’t going to reflect what’s really going on in the country in terms of infections.
"That’s exactly why we need the ONS survey - it isn’t affected by that issue, because people are tested, regardless of symptoms, just to estimate how the pandemic is developing.”
It comes after other figures from the UK Health Security Agency showed COVID hospital admission rates for people aged 75 and over in England have jumped to their highest level for more than a year.
Admission rates in both of the oldest age groups - 75 to 84 and 85 and over - are now at their highest since mid-January last year, when the second wave of the virus was at its peak.
The rate for over-85s stood at 178.3 per 100,000 people last week, up from 137 the previous week, while for people aged 75 to 84 it was 74.3, up from 59.8.
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The overall hospital admission rate in England stood at 17.9 per 100,000, up from 14.1 and the highest since the week to 16 January this year.
Scotland recently recorded its highest ever figure for the number of people in hospital with COVID.
The latest figures showed 2,322 people in hospital with recently confirmed COVID-19 on Wednesday - a rise of 65 on the previous day.
Dr Susan Hopkins, the UK Health Security Agency's chief medical adviser, said the figures are “a reminder to us all that the pandemic is not over”.
She said: “Hospital admissions and cases of COVID-19 have continued to rise and we can expect to see further increases before we start to see a decline."
“Vaccination is the key to staying safe from serious illness and it’s vital that everyone gets all of their recommended doses."
Boris Johnson dropped all of England's COVID restrictions last month, but Dr Hopkins said people should consider wearing face coverings in crowded places and socialise outside where possible.