According to the Office for National Statistics, coronavirus infections among the over-70s in the UK soared to an all-time high in mid-March, driven by the highly contagious Omicron BA.2 subvariant.

Nearly 3.3 million people were infected with Covid-19 in the week ending March 12, a 26 percent increase from the previous week and the highest level since mid-February.

Infection rates have risen in all regions of the UK, except Northern Ireland. Scotland recorded the highest infection rate from the pandemic to date, with one in 14 people infected with the virus in the week to mid-March, up from one in 18 a week earlier. In England, one in 20 people had the coronavirus during the same period, compared to one in 25 a week earlier.

The increase in infections is already starting to contribute to more hospitalizations. As of March 17, there were 14,671 Covid patients in hospitals in the UK, a 38 percent increase over the past two weeks.

Sarah Crofts, head of analytical output for the ONS Infection Survey, noted that the over-70s, the age group most prone to serious illness, “[reached] their highest estimate” since the survey began in the summer of 2020. In England, one in 30 people over 70 had Covid in the seven days to 12 March.

“These increases are largely driven by the apparent emergence of the Omicron BA.2 subvariant,” she said.

Experts believe the wave of infections is being driven by declining caution in behavior that has coincided with the increased prevalence of the BA.2 offshoot, which is 30 percent more contagious than the original Omicron.

The spate of infections comes as England prepares to end free massive Covid testing from the end of the month after the legal restrictions are lifted in late February.

“At this level of prevalence and the decision not to stop the spread, the most likely outcome is that nearly everyone susceptible will become infected,” predicted James Naismith, director of the Rosalind Franklin Institute and professor of structural biology at Oxford University. “My greatest concern is for the vulnerable for whom this disease is serious and for those whose lives will be devastated by Covid-19.”

Graham Medley, professor of infectious disease modeling at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said ending the legal self-isolation in England would make the wave “more difficult to contain now that fewer sick people are staying at home”.

On March 16, English hospitals recorded 1,823 Covid admissions, a 20 percent increase on the same day last week and the highest daily figure since January 13.

But a large proportion of registered Covid patients are not being treated primarily for the disease and instead tested positive occasionally after admission. In England, they account for 56 percent of Covid patients.

In Scotland, the number of Covid patients is just slightly below its January 2021 peak of 2,053. On Friday, there were 2,050 hospital beds occupied by Covid patients.

“There was an expectation that there would be an increase once the measures were lifted, but people didn’t expect such a sharp increase, so quickly,” said Saffron Cordery, deputy director of NHS Providers, which represents healthcare leaders in England . “We have to keep a close eye on it. There is a danger that people have been lulled into a false sense of security.”

She added that the NHS was “not currently expecting” the wave of critical incidents declared for Christmas, “but we are not moving as fast as we would like to recover from the backlog”.

The other British countries have also started lifting restrictions in recent weeks, but on Tuesday the Scottish government postponed the end of compulsory mask wear until April, amid concerns over BA.2.

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