UP to 220,000 people in England may currently have coronavirus, according to new figures – while scientists reckon a third of Brits could've already had the bug.
New estimates by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest that 0.27 per cent of the community population got the bug between April 27 and May 10.
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That's equivalent to around 140,000 people on average – but the upper limit could be closer to 220,000, figures show.
Official government figures put infections in the same time period at 66,343.
And those numbers don't include frontline health and care workers who are more exposed to the virus, they said.
For those people working in patient-facing healthcare and resident-facing social care roles, the rate of infection was six times higher – with 1.33 per cent testing positive for Covid-19.
The estimate is based on swab tests performed on 10,705 people in 5,276 households.
But it does not include people in hospital or care homes where the ONS says rates of infection are likely to be higher.
The ONS is also running a bigger long-term study to track the spread of Covid-19 in the general population.
Their wider study, which will include up to 300,000 people, includes antibody testing to help understand how many people have had Covid-19 in the past.
It comes as new research out today suggests that around one in three Brits may have already been infected with coronavirus.
Experts from the University of Manchester believe 29 per cent of the UK population – around 17.3 million – had had the disease by April 19.
And they say the majority of those would not have had any of the tell-tale symptoms of Covid-19, including a fever and persistent cough.
In particular, they say this gives some hope that a bulk of the population has developed some immunity to the deadly bug.
The researchers made the discovery after analysing published local authority data to assess the cumulative impact of infection since the Covid-19 outbreak began.
This has enabled them to calculate the R-value – the number of people infected by one person with Covid-19 – within each local authority area.
From the 144 Local Authorities analysed by the team, they estimate each infected person infected 2.8 others on March 23 before lockdown.
However, this R-rate has now fallen to 0.9 as a consequence of social distancing combined with the natural consequences of cumulative community infection.
Their analysis suggests unreported community infection may be more than 200-times higher than confirmed figures show.
It means there are as many as 237 cases for each reported case. As of April 19 there were 73,000 reported cases.
Dr Adrian Heald from The University of Manchester, one of the researchers, said: “Covid-19 is a highly infectious condition and very dangerous for a small group of people.
"However a much larger group seem to have low or no symptoms and have been unreported.
“This study tries to provide an estimate of the number of historic infections – and gives us all a glimmer of hope that there may be light at the end of the tunnel.
“We show how effective social distancing and lockdown has been. Though this is a tragedy, it could have been far worse”.
Dr Heald added that the findings, which are published in the International Journal of Clinical Practice, may help to inform the Government's decision in easing the current lockdown.
He argued that incremental lifting of current social restrictions as soon as possible is vital to minimise further damage to the economy and the impact of prolonged social containment.
However, they add, this must be balanced against containing the current pandemic and minimising future waves of infection.
Speculation is currently mounting over potential plans for social "bubbles" to be created in the next step to ease lockdown, but the Government has not yet made an official announcement.
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