Changes made to PCR testing guidance amid record demand

·6-min read

Members of the public have been urged to only book PCR tests when necessary after record numbers were arranged this week.

The Public Health Agency (PHA) has put new testing protocols in place to help protect the test system in Northern Ireland and ensure availability.

It comes as 22,972 positive cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in the five days between December 23-28.

Fully vaccinated close contacts will now be asked to take daily lateral flow tests for 10 days, and book a PCR test if one of these comes back positive.

Children aged under five should also be given lateral flow tests unless instructed otherwise by their doctor.

But Community Pharmacy NI have warned of difficulties in securing the supply of lateral flow antigen tests, with “supply outstripping demand”.

Deputy director of public health at the PHA, Dr Brid Farrell, said: “As Omicron continues to spread in Northern Ireland, we are seeing the expected rapid increase in the number of people going for PCR testing.

“While this shows that people are taking the issue seriously, and we thank them for that, it is also important that we protect the testing system so that those who need to be tested by PCR can get it.

“We are adapting the testing model in Northern Ireland. We want to make sure people with symptoms can get tested in a timely way for the next fortnight.”

These changes have been made to allow valuable PCR tests to be directed towards those who have symptoms and who are most likely to test positive

Dr Brid Farrell, PHA

Watch: COVID-19: Doubling time of Omicron could make PCR testing 'meaningless' - is it time for a rethink?

She added: “Fully vaccinated close contacts will no longer be required to take a PCR test, instead they will be advised to take a lateral flow device (LFD) test as soon as possible and continue to take daily lateral flow tests until the 10th day after the last date of contact with the positive case.

“If an LFD turns positive at any time during the 10 days, they should arrange a PCR test.

“Unvaccinated people will have to continue to self-isolate for 10 days as before.

“It is no longer necessary for children under five years of age to take a PCR test – even if they have symptoms like a cough or temperature – unless advised to do so by their doctor.

“If they develop symptoms, parents are encouraged to carry out a lateral flow test on them. If this is positive they should, if possible, book a PCR test for them.”

She said the changes would help ensure “the continued and targeted delivery of the service”.

Community pharmacies reported problems with supplies of lateral flow testing kits in the run-up to Christmas, and now, due to changes in restrictions and new testing arrangements because of the Omicron variant, we are seeing a large spike in demand for these kits

Gerard Greene, Community Pharmacy NI

“The number of cases currently coming through the system means that this is the correct time for these steps to be taken”, she added.

“These changes have been made to allow valuable PCR tests to be directed towards those who have symptoms and who are most likely to test positive.”

The arrangements took effect from 12 noon on December 29 2021.

Gerard Greene, chief executive of Community Pharmacy NI, has warned of issues with the supply of lateral flow tests.

“Community pharmacies reported problems with supplies of lateral flow testing kits in the run-up to Christmas, and now, due to changes in restrictions and new testing arrangements because of the Omicron variant, we are seeing a large spike in demand for these kits,” he said.

“At the moment, demand is outstripping supply but we are working with the Department of Health and the Health and Social Care Board to ensure supplies of the lateral flow tests from the department reach pharmacies to meet this demand.

“We understand the lateral flow test kits are in Northern Ireland so we are asking the department and board to put arrangements in place to get them out to pharmacies as quickly as possible.”

DUP MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone Deborah Erskine has questioned what steps were taken to boost testing capacity amid the threat of the more transmissible Omicron variant.

She said: “The spike in cases was well-predicted by health officials including the minister but with no PCR test slots available and pharmacies running low on lateral flow kits, the question must be asked as to what preparations were made to deal with the rise in cases.

“Just as the rise in cases was warned about, then additional kits should have been supplied to help people establish if they even needed a PCR slot.

“It is deeply disappointing that something so widely predicted has evidently not been well-prepared for.”

The SDLP have called on Health Minister Robin Swann to carry out an assessment on testing capacity.

This is a time for leadership and Minister (Robin) Swann should urgently outline what steps are being taken to progress testing capacity and ensure that everyone who requires a test is able to access one

Colin McGrath, SDLP

Watch: What is a Rapid Lateral Flow Test?

Health spokesman Colin McGrath said: “People need clarity. The SDLP is doing all we can to support the health effort.

“That is why I’ve contacted the Health Minister to ask him to ensure an assessment is carried out on testing capacity.

“We need to see assurances from the department that the situation is under control as the numbers increase in the coming weeks.

“This is a time for leadership and Minister Swann should urgently outline what steps are being taken to progress testing capacity and ensure that everyone who requires a test is able to access one.”

There were 22,972 positive cases of Covid-19 in the five days between December 23-28, it was confirmed on Wednesday.

An additional 14 deaths linked to the virus were reported.

The daily Covid-19 figures were not published over the Christmas period.

To date 3,492,932 vaccines have been administered in total.

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