Covid testing rules for people without symptoms are being relaxed to help shorten self-isolation periods, it has confirmed.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has said that asymptomatic people in England will no longer be required to get a confirmatory PCR test if they test positive on a lateral flow.
The rule change will free up PCR tests to people who do have symptoms, while allowing those who are asymptomatic to return to work faster.
When will the new rules take effect?
The new testing rules will take effect in England from 11 January, meaning asymptomatic who test positive no longer have to take a confirmatory PCR test, which currently delays the official start of their isolation period.
Instead, only those who have symptoms will be told they must get a PCR test.
This means that those who are asymptomatic - an estimated 40 per cent of cases - will be able to return to work more quickly.
More than 1.2 million people are currently isolating after testing positive for coronavirus in the last week, with hundreds of thousands more awaiting PCR tests or results.
The waiting period for PCR tests means that people are effectively in isolation longer than required, which is now seven days in England and Wales after being cut from 10 last month.
The high demand for tests in recent weeks has also added to delays after the government’s booking site has repeatedly run out of slots.
How long will the rule be in place?
The UKHSA has said the change in testing rules is a temporary measure while Covid-19 rates remain high across the UK.
Officials said that while case numbers are high, the “vast majority” of people with positive lateral flow test results can be confident they have the virus.
Anyone who has symptoms of coronavorus should still get a PCR test, the UKHSA confirmed.
UKHSA chief executive Dr Jenny Harries said: “While cases of Covid continue to rise, this tried and tested approach means that LFDs can be used confidently to indicate Covid-19 infection without the need for PCR confirmation.
“It remains really important that anyone who experiences Covid-19 symptoms self-isolates immediately. They should also order a PCR test on gov.uk, or by phoning 119.
“I’m really grateful to the public and all of our critical workers who continue to test regularly and self-isolate when necessary, along with other practical and important public health behaviours, as this is the most effective way of stopping the spread of the virus and keeping our friends, families and communities safe.”
The change comes after more than half a dozen NHS hospital trusts have declared ‘critical incidents’ due to lack of staff, bin collections have been delayed, train services have suffered cancellations, and 17 hospitals in
Greater Manchester announced on Tuesday (4 January) that they would be suspending some non-urgent surgery due to 15% of staff being off sick.
Elsewhere, call handlers at North East Ambulance Service were told in an internal memo to advise heart attack patients to get a lift to hospital, rather than wait for a 999 response.
There are also fears that staff shortages in schools could further disrupt children’s education as pupils return to classrooms this week, with as many as one in five missing from the start of term.
Despite Covid-19 case numbers continuing to rise, the Prime Minister confirmed at a Downing Street press conference on Tuesday that no further measures would be introduced in England.
However, Boris Johnson did admit that staff shortages across the public sector were causing “serious disruption” and said there was “no escaping” the problem.
But he stressed that Britain must “ride out” the Omicron wave by sticking to Plan B measures, and said another national lockdown could be devastating.
Mr Johnson went on to announce that 10,000 critical workers, in areas such as food processing, transport and the Border Force, must undertake daily lateral flow tests from next week (10 January).