Coronavirus infections have begun to fall in England, according to official data published on Thursday, suggesting the latest wave unleashed by the highly infectious Omicron BA.2 offshoot may be in retreat.
The Office for National Statistics estimated that one in every 14 people in England had Covid-19 in the week to April 9, down from one in 13 in the seven days to April 2.
Meanwhile, NHS England data covering February showed a record 6.2mn people were waiting for non-urgent hospital care, up 80,000 from January, as the health service was busy with patients admitted with Covid.
Across the UK, 4.4mn people were infected with Covid in the week to April 9, said the ONS, compared with almost 4.9mn in the previous seven days.
Infection rates were also falling in Northern Ireland and Scotland, but continued to rise in Wales.
“Across most parts of the UK, infections have thankfully begun to decrease. It is too early to say if we have passed the peak of infections and infections overall remain high,” said Sarah Crofts, head of analytical outputs at the ONS infection survey.
The Covid wave unleashed by the Omicron BA.2 offshoot, which pushed infection rates to a record level in late March, has strained the NHS.
Many NHS staff have been off sick or self-isolating due to BA.2 and about 20,000 hospital beds have been occupied by Covid patients. Several hospital trusts have been forced to declare critical incidents.
However, the latest NHS data showed the service is making progress in reducing the number of people waiting a long time for treatment.
NHS England said that, despite record 999 calls for ambulances for people with life-threatening conditions between December and March, the number of patients waiting more than a year for treatment had fallen by 12,000.
The number waiting more than two years dropped by over 500, and the NHS has pledged to end waits of this duration by July.
Stephen Powis, national medical director, said: “Despite pressure on various fronts, and the busiest winter ever for the NHS, long waits fell as staff continue to tackle two-year waits by July thanks to the innovative approaches to care they are now adopting, from same day hip replacements to dedicated mobile hubs for operations.”
But the NHS data also showed that about 37 per cent of patients are waiting longer than 18 weeks to start non-urgent treatment, against a target of just 8 per cent.
Chris Hopson, chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents healthcare organisations, said there had been good progress in the number of suspected cancer patients seen by the NHS as trusts worked to “recover, and then exceed, pre-pandemic levels of activity”.
However, he called for honesty about the “long term faultlines which have built up over the last decade” in the service, including the “longest and deepest financial squeeze in its history”.
Hopson said huge workforce shortages had developed, with 110,000 vacancies in the NHS and only 27 per cent of staff saying their organisations had sufficient workers to do their jobs properly.