Health chiefs' warning as North East Covid cases rise – just weeks before testing sites shut down

Liz Morgan, Northumberland director of public health.Liz Morgan, Northumberland director of public health.
Liz Morgan, Northumberland director of public health.
Health chiefs have warned that Covid infections in the North East are on the rise again – just weeks before testing sites across the region shut down.

Experts in Newcastle and Northumberland reported that case rates have begun to escalate once more, amid concerns over a “stealth” Omicron variant.

The rise is being blamed on the more transmissible BA.2 subvariant, described as a “son of Omicron”, combined with increased social mixing and waning booster jab immunity among older people.

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Prof Eugene Milne, Newcastle’s director of public health, said he was worried that “there is a feeling out there in a large part of the population that Covid is over, which I think is premature but it is changing people’s behaviour”.

He told councillors that infection rates in the city had risen in the past week, with more than 200 cases recorded in a single day for the first time in nearly a month, and that the BA.2 strain is believed to account for roughly two-thirds of new positive cases.

The rise in cases is also reflected in a notable jump in the number of patients in hospital with Covid in Newcastle – which was below 30 in mid-February, but now stands at 64.

Meanwhile, Covid testing facilities across the region are due to shut down at the end of the month – with free testing to end for most people on April 1 under the government’s ‘Living with Covid’ plan.

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Liz Morgan, Northumberland’s public health director, confirmed that all local testing sites and mobile testing units will cease to function at the end of March and would then be “demobilised over the next nine months”.

She told the county’s health and wellbeing board that, amid the rise in cases, people should remember that “just because the mandatory requirements have gone away does not mean there is not a need to self-isolate and test while testing is still available”.

Later, Prof Milne told Newcastle City Council’s health scrutiny committee that he fears Covid is now being taken less seriously than other viruses.

He said: “What bothers me about people’s reaction to Covid at the moment is that they have gone from it being a special case about which you do more than usual, to it now being less than you would do for norovirus for example.

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“There have always been viruses where we would ask people to isolate until they are not symptomatic anymore and we would like it to be in the same bracket as those.”

Latest data puts the Covid infection rate in Newcastle at 332 cases per 100,000 people, 399 in Northumberland, and 283 for the wider North East – all of which are rising.