Covid: ONS stops publishing local infection rates, as BA4 and BA5 variants continue to spread

Officials have stopped publishing figures showing which local areas of the UK have the highest Covid infection rates. It comes as the highly contagious variants BA4 and BA5 continue to spread, putting increasing pressure on the NHS.

UK statisticians have stopped publishing coronavirus infection rates by city, despite the virus reaching its highest level in three months.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) has ‘paused’ its local-level figures and while it says the move is temporary, it has not been able to say when they will resume.

It comes as the BA.4. and BA.5 variants continue to drive high infection rates, with an estimated 3.8 million people having Covid last week, a rise of a quarter of a million from the week before, according to the ONS’ own estimates.

It means policymakers and the public are now unable to see which specific parts of the UK have the highest infection levels or where the virus is spreading fastest.

The move is the latest blow to open data on the pandemic this year, after various official agencies made decisions to discontinue testing regimes and restrict the release of other figures.

And it has prompted calls for further investment in the UK’s data infrastructure used to track the virus.

Stian Westlake, Chief Executive of the Royal Statistical Society, said: “With Covid infection rates continuing to rise, high quality granular data on the spread of the disease remains essential.

“Over the last few years, government statisticians have done a fantastic job working at great speed to provide us with the data we need. Now is not the time to undo all this good work - we need to see government investing in our data infrastructure, not dismantling it.”

The local infection levels form part of the ONS’ world-leading Covid-19 Infection Survey, which tests tens of thousands of people across the UK each week and uses the results to estimate infection levels at national, regional and local levels.

According to the latest results published today, infection levels continued to rise in England last week, with an uncertain trend across the other home nations.

Around one in 17 people were thought to have the virus last week in England and Wales, one in 15 in Scotland and one in 20 in Northern Ireland.

But local-level figures were not published this week or last week.

The ONS said it was pausing the release of these while it transitioned to a new way of testing its sample population.

A blog post by Sarah Crofts, head of analytical outputs for the survey, revealed that it was moving to a new system with “a smaller number of tests every month”.

She said that under this new system, sometimes “we may not be able to provide detailed breakdowns, for example for small age groups or geographically small parts of the UK, adding that “the high level of precision needed during earlier stages of the pandemic is now less critical”.

A spokesperson for the ONS told NationalWorld: “The unique value of the COVID-19 Infection Survey has been recognised worldwide, and we continue to provide clear estimates of infection and antibody levels across all of the nations and regions of the UK.

“The publication of sub-regional analysis has been temporarily suspended whilst we transition to the new ‘digital’ approach, offering a more flexible experience for participants in the changing landscape of the pandemic.

“The quality of our statistics will always determine what is included for publication. During this transitional phase, it is standard practice for us to quality assure any impact that these changes have on our statistics, particularly on the quality of statistics at smaller geographical levels. The outcomes of this work will be published when our investigations have completed. The regional figures will continue uninterrupted.”