At least 12% of people in England have had Covid already, ONS says

One in EIGHT people in England had already had Covid-19 by December, ONS antibody surveillance study reveals

  • Blood testing of random people showed that 12 per cent of the population has signs of immunity to Covid-19
  • The marker of past infection appeared to be most widespread in Yorkshire & The Humber and London
  • People in the South West, South East and East of England were least likely to have had coronavirus already 

One in eight people in England had already had Covid-19 by December last year – some 5.4million people, the Office for National Statistics estimates.

Blood tests on a random sample of the population, to check for signs of immunity to Covid-19, suggested that 12 per cent of people had been infected in the past.

This was up from one in 14 people in October, showing a staggering five per cent of the population was infected even during the early parts of the second wave.

And almost a million people have been officially diagnosed with the virus since January 1 so the proportion is now likely to be even higher.

The ONS’s survey, which collects regular blood samples from a group of people intended to represent the population, suggested that signs of immunity are strongest in Yorkshire and the Humber, where antibodies were found in 17 per cent of people.

London – which has been worst affected in both the first and second wave – saw the second highest past infection rate at 16.4 per cent. 

Six out of nine regions had levels higher than the England average, with only the South East, South West and East of England showing lower signs of immunity than the country as a whole. 

The Office for National Statistics estimates how many people have had coronavirus already by checking blood samples of adults over the age of 16 for antibodies.

Antibodies are substances made by the immune system that are key to destroying viruses or marking them for destruction by white blood cells. The presence of them in the blood generally means someone has either partial or total immunity against catching a disease again.

They can only be made by someone coming into contact with the exact virus they are related to, or by someone getting vaccinated against the virus. 

This means this could be the ONS’s last clean antibody study where data isn’t muddied by the fact that millions of people have had a vaccine and will now show the same sign of immunity. 

The report said: ‘The estimates suggest there has been an increase in antibody positivity in the most recent month.’

A sharp increase in the percentage of people testing positive for antibodies is another sign of the devastating effect the second wave has had on the UK, with it surging from just seven per cent in October to 12 per cent in December.

This suggests at least five per cent of the country caught and recovered from coronavirus in just two months of the second wave in the autumn. This only includes people over 16 and living at home, and doesn’t account for care home residents or the people who died of the virus.

It’s also possible that people with a very mild illness don’t develop enough antibodies for a test to pick them up, so the true number could be even higher – around a third of people who catch the virus don’t report any symptoms. 

The testing programme estimated that outbreaks have not reached as deeply into the population in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as they have in England.

In Wales, an estimated one in 10 people would have tested positive for antibodies in December – in Scotland, one in 11 and, in Northern Ireland, one in 13. 

Antibody data on infection in private households suggests that one in 10 in Wales had also been infected by December, alongside one in 13 in Northern Ireland and one in 11 in Scotland.

The figures come from the Office for National Statistic’s Covid-19 Infection Survey in partnership with the University of Oxford, University of Manchester, Public Health England and Wellcome Trust.

Last week, the Medical Research Council (MRC) Biostatistics Unit Covid-19 Working Group at Cambridge University said it believed the proportion of the population who have ever been infected was 30 per cent in London, 26 per cent in the North West and 21 per cent in the North East.

This dropped to 13 per cent in the South East and 8 per cent in the South West.

It came as some family doctors continue to express their frustration about the rollout of vaccines across the UK.

With more than half of the over-80s and half of elderly care home residents having received the jab, ministers have now given the go-ahead to begin vaccinating the next priority groups – the over-70s and the clinically extremely vulnerable.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said ‘there will be an overlap’ between those in the first group getting their jab and those in the second as the NHS keeps up the momentum of the vaccine rollout.

He told LBC radio: ‘We’re very clear that areas should be getting through the majority of the first cohort before they move on to the second cohort, but there will be an overlap.

‘The reality is, as you’re moving through these, as you start to bring the second cohort in, there will be a bit of an overlap.

‘So, while they’re still finishing cohort one, some people from the second cohort will be having their vaccines and being contacted.

‘That’s understandable because the other alternative is you get through cohort one and you pause before you can start getting cohort two in and that would be wrong.

‘In order to keep things flowing and moving we will see some overlap, but areas should be getting through the majority of cohort one before they start moving to cohort two.’

On Monday night, Health Secretary Matt Hancock acknowledged that some parts of the country had made better progress than others in vaccinating those in the top priority group, but said more supplies of the vaccine are being pumped to areas that have fallen behind.

He said: ‘We’re prioritising the supply of the vaccine into those parts of the country that need to complete the over-80s’, adding: ‘But we don’t want to stop the areas that have effectively done that job already.’

Some GPs have taken to social media saying they are ‘crying out for more vaccines’ and that their elderly patients want to be vaccinated in local surgeries rather than having to travel further afield to mass centres.

The number of people in the UK receiving their first dose of a Covid-19 vaccine has now passed four million and the Government is on track to vaccinate around 15 million high-priority people across the UK by February 15.

Once those vaccines have taken effect, around two to three weeks later ministers will consider whether lockdown measures can be eased in England.

Despite pressure from Tory MPs to move as quickly as possible, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has warned there will be no ‘open sesame’ moment when restrictions will all be lifted together.

Speaking on BBC Breakfast, Mr Lewis said it is ‘too early’ to outline how the national lockdown will be eased in England.

‘I’m afraid it’s still a bit early to outline that at the moment. The Prime Minister said when we put these restrictions in place that we’d have a review point in mid-February; we’re still some weeks away even from that review point.

‘I think we’ve got to wait until we get to that point and see where we’re at, see how the vaccine programme is rolling out, see how the restrictions have worked and then we can look at what the next steps are.

‘But whether that’s in February or whether we move forward in March, it’s just too early now in relatively early January to give an outline to that.’

Elsewhere, Professor Janet Lord, director of the Institute of Inflammation and Ageing at the University of Birmingham, urged caution among those who have been vaccinated.

Asked whether people who have received the jab can hug their children, she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I would certainly advise not to do that at the moment because, as you probably know, with the vaccines they take several weeks before they are maximally effective.

‘It’s really important that people stay on their guard even if they’ve had that first vaccination.’

She also warned against the idea of a coronavirus immunity passport until more is known about transmission of the virus among those who have been vaccinated.

‘People might think (it is a) passport to freedom and even those who haven’t been vaccinated will see those changing their behaviours and think ‘Well, why should I bother if no-one else is either?’,’ she said.

‘That’s the real worry we’ve got at the moment.’

However, Professor Julian Savulescu, director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics, said those who have proven immunity should not be restrained.

‘There’s a serious ethical issue that you’re only entitled to restrict people’s liberty in a liberal society if they represent a threat to other people,’ he told the Today programme.

‘Carrying a virus is like carrying a loaded gun that can go off accidentally.

‘We’re entitled to restrain people and check whether they have a gun, but, if they don’t have a gun, to restrain them, that’s false imprisonment.’

He added that efforts should be made to allow those with ‘certain immunity’ to return to work and normal life.

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