Covid test rules set to be relaxed to combat staff shortages

Coronavirus testing rules are set to be eased to reduce the time people have to spend in isolation as Boris Johnson acts to combat staff absences in key parts of the economy and health service.

People who test positive on a lateral flow test will no longer need a confirmatory PCR to begin the self-isolation period if they do not have symptoms, potentially allowing them to return to work earlier, under plans being considered by ministers.

The change could be announced later today (Wednesday) as the Prime Minister argues to his Cabinet they should stick by the Plan B measures in England despite admitting parts of the health service will feel “temporarily overwhelmed”.

It comes after a Downing Street press conference on Tuesday,where he accepted that the weeks ahead are going to be “challenging’ for the health service and supply chains.

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He announced that around 100,000 “critical workers” including those in transport, policing and food distribution will get lateral flow tests on every working day starting on Monday.

Later in the Commons, he will face Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions and then make a Commons statement where he will face possible challenges from Tory MPs critical of restrictions amid concerns over staffing shortages.

Under the potential changes to the testing regime, first reported by the Daily Telegraph, the PCR capacity in laboratories will be limited to those with Covid-19 symptoms.

Currently those without symptoms who test positive on a lateral flow are asked to order a PCR test and only begin their isolation period when they receive the second result, effectively forcing them to isolate for longer than seven days – particularly if there are delays in obtaining the confirmatory result.

Health minister Gillian Keegan told the BBC there was no “official news or updates” on the change but as lateral flow tests are accurate the Government was “looking at what makes sense, we don’t need to do things that are unnecessary”.

A Government source said the change was being discussed but details were “still being finalised”.

Ministers are also expected to approve the scrapping of pre-departure tests for travellers heading to England, with Transport Secretary Grant Shapps keen to help protect the beleaguered aviation industry.

The Omicron-driven surge in coronavirus cases and the knock-on effect of staff absences is already causing major problems in parts of the health service.

A string of NHS trusts declared critical incidents and hospitals in Greater Manchester said they will pause some “non-urgent” surgery over the “rising impact” of Covid-19 and staffing shortages.

A record 218,724 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases were announced in England and Scotland on Tuesday, though the figure will have been inflated by delayed reporting over the holiday period.

NHS England figures showed 15,044 patients with Covid-19 were in hospital on Tuesday morning, with 797 requiring mechanical ventilation.

Ms Keegan acknowledged the pressure on hospitals, saying: “Right now, they are under extreme pressure with the Omicron variant, with the number of positive cases and the increase in hospitalisations, and at this point in time when they always have extreme pressure.”

Ahead of Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting, Mr Johnson confirmed he would stick with the Plan B measures including work-from-home guidance, mask-wearing and Covid health passes ahead of the scheduled review of the regulations due to expire on January 26.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will update the Scottish Parliament on the pandemic in the afternoon.

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