A record 4.9 million people in the UK are estimated to have had Covid-19 in the week ending March 26, up from 4.3 million in the previous week, the Office for National Statistics said.
It comes on the same day free coronavirus testing has ended for millions of people in England, with the Health Secretary insisting people must “learn to live with Covid”.
Sajid 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.
Mr Javid said: “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.”
Carers UK and the Alzheimer’s Society are among those who have criticised the move, with the latter saying it “risks gambling” with the lives of people living with dementia in care homes.
The Alzheimer’s Society has been campaigning to keep lateral flow tests free for all people visiting loved ones in care settings.
James White, head of public affairs and campaigns at the charity, said: “With the end of Covid rules, people may well assume infections are dwindling.
“But the reality is that cases have been soaring which means scrapping all isolation rules and ending free tests is a dangerous gamble.
“It poses an unnecessary risk for people living with dementia being exposed to infected people not isolating in the community, but also from untested people visiting care homes whilst infected.
“It’s a relief to see a small number of those giving close personal care receive free tests for care home visits, but this doesn’t go nearly far enough to allow everyone to visit safely and provide families with the reassurance needed.”
He said the Alzheimer’s Society’s helpline has heard from families concerned about paying for tests to visit loved ones when the cost of living is rising.
Helen Walker, chief executive of Carers UK, said: “Having borne the brunt of the pandemic and gone to extraordinary lengths to protect their relatives, unpaid carers are now being asked to pay in order to protect those they care for who are at risk of Covid.”
While free testing ends in England, it will continue during April in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and until the summer in Wales.
Ministers in England argue that even though infection levels have been rising, vaccines and antivirals are working to protect the vast majority of people.
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.
Asked on Thursday if it was the right time to end free Covid testing, UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) chief executive Dr Dame Jenny Harries said the UK must be prepared for the pandemic to “remain unpredictable”.
She said: “The pandemic takes its own course and it will remain unpredictable to a large extent for the next say 18 months to two years, I think is general consensus, and we will have to be continuously alert to monitor those rates and to respond appropriately to any new variants.
“But as with other respiratory viruses such as flu… at some point we have to come to terms with that.”
People should continue to take precautions, she said, adding that she will continue to wear a mask in shops and on public transport.
The Government has set out the groups who are still eligible for free testing when they have symptoms of the virus.
These 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.
Those who are positive, or have symptoms, are being urged to stay at home.
It comes as a YouGov poll found 45% of people think the Covid-19 situation in the UK is getting worse, up from 11% in February, and 42% say they are still wearing a face mask – the lowest level since July 2020 and down from 53% in February.
A quarter (26%) last took a lateral flow test more than a month ago, while one in eight (13%) has never taken one.
Published: by Radio NewsHub