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PCR test scrapped for asymptomatic Covid cases from January 11 and travel rules change

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Coronavirus testing rules for people without symptoms are to be eased as Boris Johnson faces MPs to defend his plan to “ride out” the current Covid-19 wave.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said that from January 11, asymptomatic people in England who test positive on a lateral flow test will no longer require a confirmatory PCR test.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has led a Cabinet meeting where he recommended sticking with England’s Plan B despite record case numbers and rising pressure on hospitals.

An estimated 3.7 million people in the UK had Covid-19 in the week ending December 31, up from 2.3 million in the week to December 23 and the highest number since comparable figures began in autumn 2020, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said.

In England around one in 15 people in private households had Covid-19, according ONS estimates – a level rising to one in 10 in London.

PA Graphic on Covid-19 (54105703)
PA Graphic on Covid-19 (54105703)

The move announced by the UKHSA will free up capacity in laboratories for PCR tests for those who have Covid-19 symptoms.

People who receive a positive result on a lateral flow device (LFD) will be required to self-isolate immediately, without requiring PCR confirmation.

The UKHSA said it is a temporary measure while Covid-19 rates remain high across the UK.

Officials said that while levels of Covid-19 are high, the “vast majority” of people with positive LFD results can be confident they have the virus.

People who have Covid-19 symptoms should still get a PCR test, the UKHSA said.

PA Graphic on Covid-19 (54105701)
PA Graphic on Covid-19 (54105701)

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.”

A similar system will be implemented in Northern Ireland immediately and in Scotland and Wales from Thursday.

Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Government’s Sage scientific advisory panel, said: “This change makes a lot of sense. When the prevalence is high – and it is incredibly high at the moment – almost everyone who tests positive with a lateral flow test will be a true positive.

“There is really no need to confirm this with a PCR, a step that not only wastes time but costs a lot of money and uses up laboratory resources that could be better used elsewhere.”

But he said there were downsides because it would give researchers “slightly less information” on the different variants in circulation because PCR swabs can undergo sequencing to determine which strain of coronavirus is present.

The new emphasis on beginning the period of self-isolation from the moment a positive LFD test is recorded rather than waiting for a confirmatory PCR, could also limit the time staff are off work – although official guidance currently in place suggests that self-isolation should already begin from the LFD result.

Kate Nicholls, from restaurant, pub and leisure trade body UKHospitality, said: “Good news that requirement to have PCR test following a positive LFT is to be scrapped – it currently lengthens self-isolation, particularly for asymptomatic cases and together with daily testing for contacts rather than isolation, should allow economy to keep moving.”

Exemptions to the new rules include people eligible for the £500 test and trace support payment, who will still require a confirmatory PCR to access the help.

PCRs will also be required for people participating in research and surveillance programmes and those at risk of becoming seriously ill, who have been identified as potentially eligible for new treatments.

It comes as pre-departure Covid tests for travellers arriving in England are to be scrapped, in a major boost for the beleaguered travel industry.

In a Commons statement, the Prime Minister said the Omicron variant is now so prevalent in the country that the measure is having limited impact on the spread of the disease.

He told MPs the requirement for travellers to self-isolate on arrival until they receive a negative PCR test is also being dropped.

Instead, the rules will revert to the system in place in October with travellers required to take a lateral flow test no later than the end of day two after their arrival.

The measures were originally introduced following the identification of the fast-spreading Omicron variant in South Africa last November.

Mr Johnson told the House: “When the Omicron variant was first identified, we rightly introduced travel restrictions to slow its arrival in our country.

“But now Omicron is so prevalent, these measures are having limited impact on the growth in cases, while continuing to pose significant costs on our travel industry.

“So I can announce that in England from 4am on Friday, we will be scrapping the pre-departure test, which discourages many from travelling for fear of being trapped overseas and incurring significant extra expense.”

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