The number of coronavirus infections across the UK rose by an estimated 1 million cases compared with the previous week, with figures in Scotland at a record high, data from the Office for National Statistics has revealed.
According to the latest information from the ONS, based on swabs collected from randomly selected households, an estimated 9% of the population in Scotland had Covid in the week ending 20 March â€“ about one in 11 people. The figure is the highest recorded by the survey since it began looking at the situation in Scotland in October 2020.
Infection levels also increased in England and Wales, although they decreased slightly in Northern Ireland, with data revealing that about one in 16 people in England had Covid in the most recent week, compared with one in 20 the week before, a rise from about 2,653,200 to 3,485,700 people.
The figure is just shy of the all-time high for England, when about 1 in 15 were estimated to have Covid in the week between Christmas and New Yearâ€™s Eve last year, at the height of the Omicron wave.
Experts have suggested that the recent surge in infection levels in the UK is due to a number of factors, including the lifting of Covid restrictions to various degrees across the UK, changes in behaviour, waning immunity after the booster programme, and â€“ crucially â€“ the rise of the BA.2 variant, which appears to be more transmissible than the earlier form of Omicron.
â€œThe percentage of people with infections compatible with the Omicron BA.2 variant increased in England, Wales and Scotland and decreased in Northern Ireland,â€ the ONS report states.
Previous ONS figures have suggested that Northern Ireland experienced a rise in BA.2 before other parts of the UK.
The ONS figures also show that infection levels rose in all age groups in England. While the percentage of people testing positive was highest in children between two years old and school year 6, infection levels reached unprecedented levels in older adults: among those who are 70 or over, the figure hit an estimated 5.7% on 19 March.
While all regions of England experienced a rise, the highest levels of infection were in the south-east, with about 7.5% of people â€“ or one in 13 â€“ estimated to have had Covid during the week.
Sarah Crofts, the head of analytical outputs for the Covid-19 Infection Survey, said: â€œOur latest data show infection levels have continued to increase in England, Wales and Scotland, driven by the rise of the Omicron BA.2 variant.
â€œNorthern Ireland was a few weeks ahead of the rest of the UK in this rising variant, where we now see a welcome decrease. Meanwhile, Scotland has now reached the highest level of any UK country seen in our survey.
â€œAcross England, infections have increased in all regions and age groups, notably the over-50s, who are at their highest levels since our survey began.â€
The figures come the week before free community testing ends for the majority of people. After 1 April, most people in England will have to pay to take a a Covid test, while advice to stay at home if someone has Covid symptoms is also set to be scrapped.
While vaccinations, improved treatments and a shift in variant severity have all helped to weaken the link between infections, hospitalisations and deaths, the recent surge in the number of people with Covid has nonetheless impacted the NHS, with an uptick in hospitalisations â€“ including an increase in those primarily being treated for Covid â€“ increasing concerns over infections in vulnerable people and posing logistical challenges. Some hospitals have even suspended visiting in the wake of the rising infection levels.