Up to 200,000 people could take part in the UK’s winter Covid-19 infection study (WCIS), to be conducted by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) and the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The WCIS will run from November 2023 until March 2024 and involve up to 32,000 lateral flow tests each week. The study will provide insight into the levels of Covid-19 circulating across the wider community, including identifying new variants and their impact.

It will be a scaled-down version of what was coined the ‘gold standard’ surveillance of the virus, the coronavirus infection survey (CIS), which was carried out in the UK by the ONS in collaboration with the University of Oxford during the pandemic. The CIS gathered and analysed more than 11.5 million swab tests and three million blood tests from April 2020 to March 2023.

Existing surveillance systems provide up-to-date information on hospital and intensive care unit admission rates, but the study will allow the detection of changes in the infection hospitalisation rate (IHR). Calculating the IHR will enable the UKHSA to assess the potential for increased demand for health services due to changes in how the virus spreads.

The model and scale of this study could also be replicated as a programme that captures data on different respiratory viruses in the future.

Deputy national statistician at the ONS Emma Rourke said: “There remains a need for robust data to help us continue to understand the virus and its effects during the winter months.

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“As well as working to provide UKHSA with regular rates of positivity, we will also be looking at analysis of symptoms, risk factors and the impact of respiratory infections, including long Covid, as part of this important surveillance.”

Those eligible in the UK are encouraged to take the offer of both the flu vaccine and the Covid-19 booster to protect themselves against the expected rise in cases over the winter months.