Record 4.9 million had COVID-19 in UK in last full week of March

Shoppers wearing facemasks in London's Oxford Street, as Plan B measures are lifted in England. Face coverings will no longer be mandatory in any setting, and the NHS Covid Pass will no longer be compulsory for entry into nightclubs and other large venues. Picture date: Thursday January 27, 2022.
COVID infections in the UK have reached record numbers, according to the ONS. (PA)

A record 4.9 million people in the UK are estimated to have had COVID-19 in the week ending 26 March, according to new figures.

It equates to about one in 13 people who had the virus.

That number - driven by the Omicron BA.2 subvariant - was also up from 4.3 million in the previous week.

The figures come from the Office for National Statistics' (ONS) latest infection survey, a report considered the gold standard in monitoring the prevalence of COVID in the community.

It 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 on its COVID dashboard, which only show positive results from PCR and lateral flow tests submitted to laboratories.

Free COVID testing ended on Friday. (PA)
Free COVID testing ended on Friday. (PA)

It comes on the same day as free coronavirus testing ended for millions of people in England, with health secretary Sajid Javid insisting people must “learn to live with COVID”.

Javid said it was right to “focus resources” on those people who still most needed testing, including some hospital patients and those at a high risk of severe COVID.

Most people will now need to shop on the high street for paid-for tests if they want them.

Carers UK and the Alzheimer’s Society are among those to have criticised the move, with the latter saying it “risks gambling” with the lives of people living with dementia in care homes.

While free testing has ended in England, it will continue during April in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and until the summer in Wales.

Watch: Face mask laws to end in Scotland on ‘phased basis’ (from Wednesday)

Ministers in England have argued that even though infection levels have been rising, vaccines and antivirals are working to protect the vast majority of people.

However, the most recent data, as of Wednesday, show there were 15,632 people in hospital in England with COVID, up 18% week on week and the highest since 19 January.

Read more: COVID vaccines give extra protection to previously infected, studies show

Asked on Thursday if it was the right time to end free testing, UK Health Security Agency chief executive Dr Dame Jenny Harries only said the UK must be prepared for the pandemic to “remain unpredictable”.

Groups still eligible for free testing include some hospital patients, some people at high risk of severe COVID, and some who live or work in “high-risk settings” including some NHS and social care units or prisons.