By DANICA KIRKA and MIKE CORDER
LONDON (AP) — U.K. health authorities eased COVID-19 testing requirements in England on Wednesday, in a move that could help tackle staff shortages that are hitting public services from hospitals and ambulances to trains and garbage collection amid an omicron-fueled surge in infections.
The change came a day after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that England has “a chance to ride out” the omicron variant-driven surge in infections without imposing tough lockdown measures. He was meeting with Cabinet ministers Wednesday before answering questions in Parliament and delivering a statement on COVID-19.
The new rules don’t apply to the other parts of the U.K. — Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales — which formulate their own health regulations.
The U.K. Health Security Agency said that from Jan. 11 people in England who test positive using a rapid lateral flow test will no longer need to confirm the result with a PCR test if they are asymptomatic.
The temporary move, which also was used by the government early last year, will cut the time people who record a positive lateral flow test but don’t have COVID-19 symptoms need to self-isolate. They will no longer need to wait for the result of a PCR test and then begin another seven days of isolation.
“While cases of COVID continue to rise, this tried-and-tested approach means that LFDs (lateral flow devices) can be used confidently to indicate COVID-19 infection without the need for PCR confirmation,” said the health security agency’s chief executive, Jenny Harries.
John Edmunds, Professor in the Centre for the Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said the move made 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,” he said.
But he cautioned that the change will mean authorities have less data about the spread of different variants as PCR swabs are used for genotyping and sequencing to identify different mutations. He said the change also will mean that daily updates on confirmed cases — which also come from PCR tests — “may need more careful interpretation.”
Confirmed new daily infections across the U.K. jumped to a record 218,274 on Tuesday, 15% more than the previous high set Dec. 31. However, inconsistent reporting during the holiday period may have inflated the daily figures.
The leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, tested positive for the coronavirus and will miss the chance to grill Johnson in Parliament on Wednesday about the government’s COVID-19 policies.
A string of National Health Service local organizations have declared “critical incidents” in recent days amid staff shortages. Hospitals in the Greater Manchester region said they would pause some non-urgent surgeries amid the rising impact of COVID-19 and worker absences.
Gillian Keegan, a junior minister at the U.K. Ministry of Health, acknowledged the strain in an interview with the BBC.
“Right now, they are under extreme pressure with the omicron variant, with the number of positive cases and the increase in hospitalizations, and at this point in (winter) time when they always have extreme pressure,” Keegan said.
There have also been cuts to train services and garbage is piling up in some city streets due to shortages of staff to collect it.
NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor told the BBC he would support the new testing regime if scientists deem it safe.
“Hospitals who have declared critical incidents, for example, are essentially reaching out to staff who are on leave, on rest days or even recently retired and asking them to come back to wards, so the situation is desperate,” Taylor said. “Any way of getting staff back into hospital is a good thing.”
An ambulance service in northeast England began advising patients with non-life-threatening conditions over the New Year’s weekend to ask a relative drive them to a hospital as waiting times for ambulances rose due to staff shortages and extra demand.
“It is still taking us too long to get an ambulance to patients. Unfortunately, due to this, patients remain at risk, which is unacceptable,” North East Ambulance Service medical director Mathew Beattie said Wednesday.
He stressed, however, that “we would never ask anyone to drive themselves to hospital with a life-threatening illness.”
Opposition politicians and some public health experts have pressed the government to tighten restrictions on business and personal interactions as omicron sweeps across the country. Johnson has resisted their calls after almost 100 of his party’s lawmakers opposed mask requirements and other infection-control measures imposed last month.
Mike Corder reported from The Hague, Netherlands.
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