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expert reaction to latest stats from the ONS COVID-19 Infection Survey, UK: 9 December 2022

The Office for National Statistics (ONS), have released the latest data from their COVID-19 Infection Survey.


Prof Kevin McConway, Emeritus Professor of Applied Statistics, The Open University, said:

“The latest release of results from the ONS Coronavirus Infection Survey (CIS) takes the picture up to the week ending 26 November in England, though to slightly earlier dates in the other UK countries (24 November for Scotland and Wales, 23 November for Northern Ireland).  For the second week running, ONS estimate that the number of people in the community population in England, who would test positive for the virus, increased compared to the previous week.  For the latest week, they are also reporting an increase in Northern Ireland, and the trend in Wales is now said to be ‘uncertain’ for the most recent week, after ONS reported that it was decreasing for the week before.  ONS reported that the trend in Scotland was uncertain for the most recent week and the week before.

“Overall I’m neither surprised nor hugely concerned about these trends, not yet anyway, though I’ll continue to keep a careful eye on the data as they come out each week.  I’m not surprised at the increase in England, because Covid-19 is a respiratory disease (though it can affect other organs too), and it’s spread through the air.  Covid never went away, we’re going into winter, and it’s getting colder.  People are spending more time indoors, and perhaps travelling on public transport that can be crowded because of Christmas shopping and various disruptions.  Conditions like that have always caused increases in respiratory and airborne infections around this time of year.

“And I’m not (yet) hugely concerned, because the increases aren’t all that big.  In England, the estimated proportion of the population that would test positive, for the most recent week, is 1 in 60 (with margin of error from about 1 in 55 to about 1 in 60).  That’s the level where we were, according to ONS, in the first week in November this year, so quite a lot lower than it was around the start of October, or indeed for most of August, let alone most of the first half of the year.

“In fact infections in England are at about the level that they were almost exactly a year ago, when most people (including me) were feeling pretty good about the Covid situation in this country.  That was just before we were hit with the huge rise in cases driven by the Omicron variant.  Since then, the Omicron variant, or sub-variants of it, have been dominant here and across the world.  A relatively new sub-variant, BQ.1, has been increasing considerably in recent weeks according to ONS (and others).  I’m no virologist, but I do know that the differences between BQ.1 and previous Omicron sub-variants aren’t on the same large scale as the differences between the original Omicron variant and the variants that went before it.  One can be never certain about what could happen with variants, but I don’t currently see any cause for alarm on the scale that happened with Omicron a year ago.

“The position in the other three UK countries, differs in detail from the position in England, but broadly speaking the story is the same.  Current infection levels, while they aren’t falling in any of the UK countries, are lower than they were for the great majority of weeks in 2022.

“For the English regions, the picture is mixed, with increasing trends in some places, and uncertain trends in others, but the levels remain low in comparison to most of 2022 everywhere.  In terms of the age groups in the English population than ONS use for analysis, ONS are reporting increasing recent trends particularly in children of secondary school age, and younger adults, and uncertain trends in other groups, but again the changes have not been rapid.

“A quick reminder that the CIS is a pretty reliable source of information on infection levels in the UK, in my view.  It tests representative samples of people for infection, not because they have symptoms or work in particular jobs, but only to track infection rates.  And most of the other data sources that used to be used to track the pandemic have long ago ceased to operate, or have become very unreliable as the availability of routine tests has fallen away.  The ZOE app still produces regular estimates, based partly on responses from people on the app, and broadly speaking they track the ONS data reasonably closer, though the latest ZOE figures are rather more up to date than the ONS results can be.  The ZOE estimates have also recently been showing increases in symptomatic infections, though as with the ONS findings, the increases are not large and estimated infection levels remain below where they were for most of this year.”



All our previous output on this subject can be seen at this weblink:



Declared interests

Prof Kevin McConway: “I am a Trustee of the SMC and a member of its Advisory Committee.  My quote above is in my capacity as an independent professional statistician.”

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