COVID test shortage 'very worrying' after Boris Johnson gives New Year's Eve parties the thumbs up

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a media briefing in Downing Street, London, on coronavirus (Covid-19). Picture date: Saturday November 27, 2021.
Boris Johnson has asked people to take tests before socialising for New Year's Eve. (PA Images)

Boris Johnson has come under fire amid chaos over COVID testing shortages in the run-up to New Year and concerns surrounding rising numbers of people being admitted to hospital.

Lack of PCR and lateral flow tests (LFTs) have been reported across the UK in recent days as the highly contagious Omicron variant of COVID-19 rapidly spreads.

On Wednesday, the prime minister said people should continue with their plans to celebrate on New Year's Eve, but asked them to mitigate risks by taking precautions – such as tests – before attending events.

Read more: How England's COVID restrictions compare to the rest of Europe

"I think everybody should enjoy New Year but in a cautious and sensible way," he said.

"Take a test, ventilation, think about others — but above all, get a booster."

However, Professor Peter Openshaw, from the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), expressed concern about the lack of available testing capacity.

“It’s very worrying indeed,” Professor Openshaw told Radio 4’s Today. “We know the situations in which transmission happens and fortunately I don’t think we are facing the sort of lockdown that was necessary in order to cope in the very earliest part of this year.

“But we do know that crowding together in poorly ventilated spaces, particularly if you are shouting over loud music and so on, is absolutely perfect in terms of transmitting this very, very high transmissible virus.”

Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a visit to a Covid vaccination centre at the Rainbow Pharmacy in the Open University Campus, Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire. Picture date: Wednesday December 29, 2021.
The prime minister has insisted the booster campaign is the best way to tackle Omicron as it surges across the UK. (PA Images)

However, despite the crisis in testing, the prime minister has continued to give New Year's Eve festivities the thumbs up in England – striking a different tone to the devolved administrations.

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has urged the public to limit celebrations to three households and closed nightclubs, while Welsh first minister Mark Drakeford also closed nightclubs and reintroduced measures like the 'rule of six'. Northern Ireland has also taken similar measures.

On Thursday, the Welsh Government came to the aid of Westminster by loaning England four million lateral flow tests, bringing the total the country has donated to 10 million.

Read more: Everyone will get COVID more than once during their lives, scientist says

Professor Marshall, chairman of the Royal College of GPs, said there was mixed messaging from the government on the matter of testing.

“It does seem to be that there’s some mixed messages here because the secretary of state said yesterday that there was a global shortage because demand globally in most countries for testing has gone up massively,” he told Times Radio.

“But we’ve also, as you say, been told by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) that there’s a local logistics problem of delivering to pharmacies and delivering to warehouses that supply the online suppliers of the testing.”

An out of stock lateral flow test sign on the window of a Boots pharmacy in London. Picture date: Wednesday December 29, 2021.
COVID test shortages have been reported across the UK. (PA Images)

He added: "There’s no point in having that advice if, as GPs, we know were no longer able to help patients to actually act on that advice - and that’s a big issue for us.”

And it is not just lack of testing in the run up to New Year’s Eve that is triggering concern, either.

Palliative care medic Dr Rachel Clarke described rising hospitalisations as “unsustainable”.

Read more: COVID-19: New Nightingale 'surge hubs' to be set up amid growing Omicron wave

Some 1,213 people were recorded as being hospitalised with COVID on Wednesday, with the seven-day average reaching 6,878 - up 13.2% on the previous week.

“England now has >10k people with Covid in hospital - the highest peak since early March,” Clarke wrote on Twitter. “Cases have already risen by 2k in just two days.

“This is unsustainable. Our ability to care for Covid & non-Covid patients is finite.

“So how can you possibly fail to act, @BorisJohnson?”

A Mobile Testing Unit at Sixways Stadium in Worcester, Worcestershire, which has opened this morning after the South African variant of COVID-19 was identified in the WR3 postcode area. Picture date: Monday 8 February, 2021.
The COVID testing system has come under pressure. (PA)

Deepti Gurdasani, an epidemiologist at Queen Mary University of London who is also part of the unofficial Independent SAGE group of COVID experts, struck a similar tone.

“We live in a country where the govt will ask the military to set up field hospitals & plan for mortuary capacity before enacting even the most basic public health measures to prevent this," Gurdsani wrote on Twitter.

“183,000 confirmed cases today - the silence is deafening.”

The UK recorded its highest ever number of COVID cases on Wednesday, reporting 183,037 new cases within a 24-hour period and 57 deaths.

Watch: Boris Johnson calls on people to get booster jabs as Omicron cases surge in UK