People in England without Covid symptoms who have a positive lateral flow test will no longer need a confirmatory PCR test from January 11, the UK Health Security Agency has confirmed.
It comes amid fears of disruption to routine NHS care due to staff shortages caused by the spread of the Omicron variant.
The UKHSA said the measure was “temporary” and the chances of a false positive result were “very low” because Covid is so prevalent.
Under the new testing regimen, those who return a positive result will still need to isolate immediately for up to ten days - reduced to seven if they return negative results on day 6 and 7 of their period of isolation.
UKHSA chief executive Dame 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.”
While many NHS trusts in London are continuing to run all services, there is disruption in others of routine care, with some appointments being postponed.
NHS London’s incident director and senior nurse, Martin Machray said: “We’re focused on vaccinating as many people as possible during this complex time while Covid is continuing to cause significant pressure for London hospitals, including from staffing absences.
“Things are tough for our health service but people can be reassured that the NHS is still here for them — Londoners should continue to come forward for the care they need, whether that’s by contacting their GP or using 111.”
A minister admitted that around one million people across the country are self-isolating with Covid-19. Hospitals and other critical public services are facing crippling staff shortages caused by the unprecedented wave of cases, and the testing system is under significant strain with people still struggling to get lateral flow tests.
Ministers were also meeting to discuss foreign travel and whether to end pre-departure tests.
Asked on BBC Breakfast if she would support the removal of pre-departure tests for people travelling back to the UK, health minister Gillian Keegan said given the high number of Covid cases “you look at what makes sense in terms of travelling and travel arrangements”.
Under current rules, those who test positive are supposed to isolate for 10 days although they can be released from quarantine earlier if they produce two negative test results on days six and seven of their isolation period.
It is hoped that the change would potentially reduce the time people spend in isolation allowing them to return to the workplace more quickly. The Government has also announced plans to offer 100,000 critical workers daily lateral flow tests from next week to ease the supply crunch on testing.
Ms Keegan said the testing kits would be sent directly to the critical workplaces identified by the Government which she confirmed would include fire, police, emergency services, the Border Force, testing lab staff, food processing and some elements of the transport sector.
Boris Johnson, who was chairing Cabinet on Wednesday morning to discuss the Covid crisis, declared on Tuesday that the NHS was now on a “war footing” as it deals with the nationwide surge caused by the highly infectious Omicron variant.
Although scientists are increasingly confident the variant is less severe than previous strains of the disease, the sheer volume of people testing positive — there were 218,724 positive cases reported yesterday — is leading to serious staffing issues as more and more people are required to isolate for up to 10 days.
Ms Keegan said that based on the number of people testing positive over the past few days, she estimated there were now “around one million people” having to self-isolate.
She told Sky News: “We don’t collect that data on a daily basis but it’s obvious if you look at the number of people who tested positive yesterday — about 215,000, they’ll all be self-isolating... it’s probably about a million people self-isolating right now.”
NHS trusts across the country have been declaring critical incidents while facing staffing problems. Homerton University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust has four wards caring for Covid patients at Homerton Hospital, while 300 members of staff are having to self-isolate.