Coronavirus cases in the UK spiked on Monday after reinfections were included on the UK government's daily Covid-19 dashboard for the first time. Under the new metric, cumulative infections in the UK now stand at 17,315,893 cases.
The decision to include reinfections was prompted by the changing nature of the virus in the Omicron wave. Their inclusion caused the figure to jump from 16.5 million on January 30.
UK Office for National Statistics figures published last week showed the risk of reinfection during the Omicron wave has been far higher than at any other stage of the pandemic. A reinfection is defined as someone who tests positive for Covid-19 more than 90 days after a previous positive result.
The data shows 180,662 deaths have occurred in the UK where Covid-19 was mentioned on the death certificate. Now that reinfections are included in the data, the fatality rate — deaths as a percentage of cases — is likely to fall to a level more associated with flu.
Comparisons between flu and Covid-19 are not particularly helpful from a public health perspective, but data from the Centre for Disease Control in the US suggest a seasonal flu fatality rate of around 0.1 per cent to 0.2 per cent.
If the Covid-19 fatality rate does fall, it would mark the latest waypoint in the virus's journey from pandemic to an endemic affliction, at least in highly vaccinated populations.
Last week, data from the Covid-19 symptom-tracking ZOE app showed that for the first time since the start of the pandemic, if people in the UK experience cold-like symptoms, they are just as likely to have coronavirus as they are another respiratory illness.
“I think we have to realise that things have changed and [Covid-19] is acting more similarly to most respiratory viruses in the current environment of previous exposure and vaccinations,” Prof Tim Spector of King's College London told The National last week.
“So calling it a cold or flu-like illness, or cold or flu-like virus, is probably becoming more appropriate now than it was. You can't separate them symptomatically in vaccinated populations.”
Even before the assimilation of reinfections in the UK's Covid figures, the highly transmissible Omicron variant boosted infections to an all-time high, peaking at more than 4 per cent the population.
This increase has been reflected in rising hospital admissions.
Yet this rise has not been reflected in a rise in patients with Covid-19 in mechanical ventilation beds, indicating that fewer hospital admissions are ending up in ICU.
Further evidence of Covid-19's declining lethality came from the ONS, which suggested that the fatality rate had fallen to 0.1 per cent this January from 1 per cent last January.
The significance of the ONS data is that, unlike the UK government's official figures, they are based on a random sample of people who test positive, which means they include asymptomatic people and those who would not normally have been tested.