The number of people testing positive for coronavirus in England has hit its highest level since mid-June after a 27% increase in cases in a single week, despite a fall in the number of people being tested.

Between 6 August and 12 August, 6,616 people tested positive for the virus even though testing dipped by 2% – staying broadly steady at about 1.2m, which is about half the weekly capacity of almost 2.4m tests.

In an indication that the NHS may be again facing an increased demand from people with Covid-19, it was the first time there had been a notable increase (+34%) in positive tests in hospitals or at the sites of outbreaks, known as “pillar one”, since the NHS test and trace launched on 28 May.

The majority of the positive tests were still carried out in community settings, known as “pillar two”, with people swabbing themselves using home kits or attending regional and mobile testing units.

The pilar one rise is likely to cause particular concern among health planners as it could indicate an increase in the number of people who are feeling ill enough to seek medical attention.

The following groups of people can ask for a test through the NHS website:

anyone in England and Wales who has symptoms of coronavirus, whatever their age
anyone in Scotland and Northern Ireland aged 5 and over who has symptoms of coronavirus

The following groups of people can access priority testing through the website:

essential workers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
anyone in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland over 5 years old who has symptoms of coronavirus and lives with an essential worker
children under 5 years old in England and Wales who have symptoms of coronavirus and live with an essential worker (this test must be performed by a parent or guardian)

The government has published guidance on testing for essential workers and the list of essential workers below.

The government says that tests for essential workers are prioritised over the tests available for the wider public through the NHS.

Source: website

The figures follow the outbreak at the Greencore sandwich factory in Northampton, which gave the town England’s highest infection rate between 9 and 16 August of 116.6 per 100,000 people, up from 38.7 the previous week.

In Oldham, where local leaders have been resisting a return to some lockdown measures, the rate dropped from 105.4 to 84.3, with 200 new cases. Blackburn with Darwen is third in the list where the rate has risen very slightly from 74.2 to 76.2 per 100,000. Other areas which recorded week-on-week jumps include Manchester, up from 37.8 to 49.0, Salford, up from 24.3 to 36.7, and Bury, up from 25.1 to 33.0, all in the north-west.

There has been growing criticism of the government’s testing regime with the former prime minister Tony Blair this week calling for the roll out of mass testing for Covid-19 before the end of 2020. His Institute for Global Change called for “a giant leap in the focus, resources and support demanded of government”.

“The fact that positive diagnoses have risen at a time when the number of tests are remaining fairly static does suggest that the incidence of Covid-19 in the community is now beginning to rise again,” said Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the Norwich School of Medicine at the University of East Anglia.

“Clearly if this trend continues the demands on the test-track-and-trace service and on the NHS will increase over the coming weeks.”

The latest figures, released on Thursday, show no progress in improving the contract tracing part of the system. The number of people testing positive whose cases were referred to the tracing system fell slightly to 4,803, mainly due to a delay in processing that resulted in 681 people not having their cases transferred promptly.

More than a fifth of those were not reached by tracers to find out who they had been in contact with – a failure rate that has remained steady since mid-June. Only 71% of the contacts of the infected people were then reached and asked to self-isolate, compared with 74.2% in the previous week.

Meanwhile in Scotland, the first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, told Holyrood that Scotland would remain in stage three of the plan for easing of lockdown restrictions, as she announced that there had been 77 new cases of coronavirus since yesterday, the highest number of new cases over a 24-hour period in nearly three months.

Sturgeon said there were 27 new cases in Tayside overnight, where the cluster linked to the 2 Sisters chicken processing factory in Coupar Angus has now reached 43 positive cases in total.

Sturgeon said 37 of the cases in the “significant” cluster were employees and the six others were their contacts, adding that further restrictions on the local area were being “urgently” considered. The army has a mobile testing unit in place and the factory has closed for two weeks while all 900 staff are urged to get tested.

Sturgeon said: “This number will almost certainly grow, we are stressing the importance of all workers at the plant self-isolating and getting tested. Given the nature and potential scale of this outbreak, we are considering carefully and urgently whether further restrictions are necessary.”

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