Covid testing to be ramped up for winter

Scientists fear UK could be ‘flying blind’ on infection rates due to lack of monitoring programmes

Doctor administers covid test to patient
There is currently no widespread testing system for Covid apart from hospital patients
(Image credit: SimpleImages/Getty Images)

The UK’s public health body will increase Covid testing and surveillance to ease pressure on the NHS this winter, amid fears of a surge in infections.

“Planned scaling up of testing and community surveillance for the winter season, when health pressures usually rise, is in progress,” said Professor Steven Riley, director general of data, analytics and surveillance at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

Hospitalisation rates in England, while low, are rising, with experts blaming a mixture of “waning immunity”, a rise in indoor mixing and the appearance of a new Omicron subvariant, according to The BMJ (British Medical Journal).

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“UKHSA officials were keen to stress that the [testing and surveillance] programme was not in response to any new variant,” said The Times, “but designed to help the health system through the winter months.” There is currently “no widespread testing system for coronavirus or influenza apart from hospital patients”, the paper noted.

The announcement comes as schools reopen and universities prepare for the return of students, employees head back to work and indoor gatherings are set to rise, “factors that are known to increase the risk of respiratory infections, including Covid, spreading”, said The Guardian.

Last week, the UKHSA announced that England’s autumn Covid and flu vaccination programme would be brought forward to September. Scotland’s vaccination programme begins today, just days after a new variant was confirmed in the country. Scientists “do not have clear information about how rapidly [BA.2.86, the new variant] is spreading”, said BBC News.

A “prominent” Scottish GP warned that plans for Covid testing and vaccinations this winter were “a total shambles”, according to a leaked letter cited in the Daily Record this month. The deputy leader of the Scottish Labour Party, Jackie Baillie, described the lack of planning for a Covid surge as “astonishing”.

Scientists warned last month that the curtailment of infection surveillance programmes had left the UK unprepared for a new wave.

“What worries me most is if we get a repeat of the last winter NHS crisis this winter again, with Covid, flu and RSV all hitting around the same time,” said Christina Pagel, a professor of operational research at University College London. “We are definitely flying near blind.”

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Harriet Marsden is a writer for The Week, mostly covering UK and global news and politics. Before joining the site, she was a freelance journalist for seven years, specialising in social affairs, gender equality and culture. She worked for The Guardian, The Times and The Independent, and regularly contributed articles to The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The New Statesman, Tortoise Media and Metro, as well as appearing on BBC Radio London, Times Radio and “Woman’s Hour”. She has a master’s in international journalism from City University, London, and was awarded the "journalist-at-large" fellowship by the Local Trust charity in 2021.