COVID-19: Follow-up PCR testing rules to be ‘relaxed’ to tackle staff shortages

Health officials are understood to have drawn up plans to limit PCR tests to people who are symptomatic (Photo: Getty Images)

COVID testing rules will be relaxed to shorten self-isolation periods in a bid to tackle the UK’s crippling staff shortages, it has been claimed.

Health officials are understood to have drawn up plans to limit PCR tests to people who are symptomatic, allowing those who do not have symptoms to return to work faster.

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What will the new rules be?

Under the rules, millions of people who test positive for COVID-19 on a lateral flow device will be told they do not need to take a follow-up PCR test, which currently delays the official start of their isolation period, The Telegraph reports.

Instead, only those who have symptoms will reportedly be told they must wait for a PCR test.

This means that those who are symptomatic - an estimated 40% 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.

When will the changes take effect?

The rule changes are expected to be announced on Wednesday, 5 January, and come as the UK struggles to cope with COVID-related staff shortages.

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 that they would be suspending some non-urgent surgery due to 15% of staff being off sick.

In Liverpool, three hospitals have suspended normal visiting arrangements as COVID-19 cases continue to rise in the region.

Liverpool University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust introduced the measures at Royal Liverpool, Aintree University Hospital and Broadgreen University Hospital.

Total number of Covid-19 related hospital admissions up to 26 October: 111

The move was made after coronavirus was revealed as the reason behind more than a third of NHS staff absences at the Trust.

NHS England data shows 801 staff at Liverpool University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust were off sick on December 26 – the latest date for which data is available.

Of them, 296 (37%) were off because they had COVID-19, or were self-isolating due to the virus.

This was a 68% increase on a week before, when 176 COVID-related absences were recorded.

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).