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Coronavirus: End of free testing ‘diminished ability to analyse virus’

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One of those is Professor Denis Kinane of Cignpost diagnostics. Speaking to Express.co.uk, he said: While the UK’s Covid-19 infection numbers continue to drop and the country downgrading it’s COVID alert level, experts have warned that this phenomenon might very much be a ‘calm before the storm’.

“Over the course of the pandemic, data has shown that it is not unusual for cases to hit peaks and troughs, but it is important to note that sharp drops and steep rises can be a cause for worry. It is expected that cases will continue to fall over the next few weeks but there is an increasing likelihood that they will start showing sharp spikes by October.”

Subsequently, the prediction is that this respite will not be as long as has occurred in the past when the summer has come around and provided three months of relatively Covid free space. In fact this summer saw case numbers rise to some of their highest since the pandemic began.

On this, Kinane explained: “The sharp rise in COVID cases in the UK over the last couple of months was primarily driven by the emergence of the Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 variants which have displayed increased transmissibility.”

Furthermore, as well as BA.4 and BA.5, dominating the viral landscape in the UK, other subvariants have developed which could also play a role such BA.2.75, also known as Centaurus.

While BA.2.75 will remain on the radar of virologists, it won’t be the last variant seen in the British Isles said Kinane: “With almost three million people in the UK still not vaccinated, the virus will continue to mutate, new variants will emerge that might be more transmissible, and can possess characteristics that enable them to escape immunity.”

However, knowledge of these mutations will be greatly impacted by the removal of universal free and asymptomatic testing in spaces such as hospitals and care homes.

On this Kinane said: “The end of universal free testing and more recently the suspension of testing for individuals working and living in various high-risk settings has further diminished the UK’s capability to effectively analyse and contain the behaviour of the virus.”

This has marked a step change in the UK’s global standing. In the early phases of the pandemic, the country’s ability to test a lot of people very quickly and for free meant reacting to variants quickly was possible.

This has now changed, says Kinane: “Over the course of the pandemic, the UK’s globally lauded testing regimen allowed it to gain comprehensive visibility of the virus’ behaviour and allowed speedy deployment of targeted containment measures, amply demonstrated by the rapid provision of booster jabs shortly after the emergence of the Omicron variant.

“The subsequent drawdown in testing has reduced our surveillance of the virus and has discouraged people from testing regularly.”

As a result, any mutation in COVID-19 will be harder to spot, to track, and to react to and means the population is more vulnerable to variants such as BA.5 and Centaurus which are less benign than other variants.

Kinane is highly supportive of a return to a more thorough testing regime, such as a return to PCR tests as these are “the most accurate and thorough way of understanding how the virus is behaving”.

The reason for the need to return to a higher testing capacity is due to changes in how people are being infected with Kinane adding: “Over the last couple of months, it is clear that people are getting reinfected at a rapid pace, and social attitudes to the virus have also relaxed, and with the Government relaxing isolation requirements, several individuals testing positive are not isolating sufficiently and consequently increasing the virus’ spread.”

Part of this relaxation in attitudes is not just due to governmental attitudes, but also the sheer weight of other major news events both at home and abroad. This has resulted in the thoughts of many switching from COVID-19 to the war in Ukraine and the impact of the cost of living crisis.

Nevertheless, Kinane cautioned: “It is vital to remember that COVID is still a dangerous and highly infectious disease, and it is important to remain cautious, especially for people who are immunocompromised and have not completed the full vaccination course.”

So what happens next?

This is anyone’s guess. At the moment the Covid forecast is uncertain and a lot of it, much like the weather, is guesswork. Many predict a sixth wave of the virus in October, but this could come sooner or later.

One good indicator is looking abroad, if a new wave or variant begins in the likes of Europe, there’s a high likelihood it will reach the UK in no time at all.

Could we see another lockdown?

Only in the worse case scenario. Two years on from the beginning of the pandemic and there is a high degree of immunity despite not everyone being vaccinated.

Although another lockdown is highly unlikely, the return of other restrictions such as masks should not be ruled out.

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