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Covid: UK Set To End Follow-Up PCRs After Positive Lateral Flow Test

The UK government is understood to be preparing to announce that people will no longer have to take PCR tests to confirm their coronavirus infection after a positive lateral flow test since they delay the start of isolation.

The care minister, Gillian Keegan, told the Today programme that she understood the plan was “being considered but there isn’t a decision that’s been communicated to me yet”, adding that any change would be to reflect the “accuracy and the amount of lateral flow tests” rather than to curb staff shortages. She told BBC Breakfast that she did not know when any announcement would be scheduled.

She said there were “no immediate plans” to reduce the seven-day minimum isolation period down to five if a negative lateral flow is obtained, but added that it was “a reasonable question to ask” and one that is currently being considered by scientists.

About 1 million people are thought to be isolating due to Covid, causing widespread absences and disruption across essential services, including healthcare, police and food processing.

Keegan told Sky News that although the government does not collect figures on self-isolation, it estimates these based on the number of people who have tested positive in recent days, including Tuesday’s record of 215,000.

Hospitals are reporting that they are struggling to cope with staff absences, with several declaring critical incidents and 17 in Greater Manchester saying they would suspend some non-urgent surgery as 15% of staff are off sick. An internal memo from the North East ambulance service foundation trust suggested that call handlers recommend people suffering from a heart attack or stroke get a lift into hospital from friends or family.

Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, told the Today programme that healthcare absences are averaging at about 10%, with Covid the biggest reason, but that this figure is much higher in some hospital trusts.

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He approved of the proposals to remove the confirmatory PCR “as long as it’s based on the science” and not on “politics and blind hope”, and welcomed any measures that could ease pressure on hospitals, which are asking staff on leave, rest days or who are recently retired to come back.

Asked about whether another possible solution could include bringing the isolation period down to five days, he reiterated this would only be an option “if the science indicates it’s safe”.

He added: “The situation in relation to staff absences is so acute that we need to consider all possibilities.”

Keegan said the government had known that this would be one of “the most pressurised winters” due to the NHS backlog that has built up over the pandemic, combined with flu and the arrival of the Omicron variant. “That’s why we’ve put an extra £5.4bn of investment to try and get extra staff, get some extra capacity to be able to put virtual wards in place, extra beds and extra capacity with the Nightingales,” she said.

Keegan said she had asked NHS England to look into reports that friends or family are being asked to transport potential heart attack or stroke sufferers to hospital, which she said was not “an acceptable approach”.

She told Sky News: “That is not what we have put in place at all. We have more ambulance crews in operation than we have ever had, we also gave £55m extra just for this period to cover staff and make sure we had increases in staff and staffing levels.”