PCR test changes hint at how government intends to ‘live with COVID’ – but a new variant could change everything | Politics News

Changes to testing rules, which the government plans to announce today, are part of the delicate balance of “living with COVID”

As infection numbers have soared during the past month of the Omicron wave, testing capacity has been increasingly stretched.

Key workers including teachers and social care staff have reported waiting days for PCR tests sent to their home to return a result, after a positive lateral flow test.

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The change would mean people in England who are not experiencing one of the official COVID-19 symptoms – a high temperature, persistent cough, loss of sense of taste or smell – would no longer be required to seek a PCR confirmation.

According to ONS data, four in 10 people who test positive do not have symptoms – enough to ease the pressure on the system, officials say.

There are, however, expected to be exceptions for those who work in high-risk settings – like hospitals and care homes – or those applying for £500 Test and Trace support payments, who would still be required to seek a PCR test.

Health minister Gillian Keegan told Sky News this morning that given “many people are getting very accurate results from their lateral flow tests” it’s time to look at “what value the PCR adds”.

But she made clear that this change would mean a lot less data about how many people have COVID, so it’s crucial that people register their lateral flow results online.

“We are relying on people doing the right thing, that is always what we have been relying on all through this pandemic,” she told Sky News.

“It’s going to be really important that we do get the results from lateral flow tests, it’s an important part of the information that we need.”

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Boris Johnson says that he will recommend to the cabinet that Plan B COVID restrictions continue, while urging people to get a booster jab.

Government sources said this morning that priorities now had to be made with testing – with the UK now undertaking around 1.5million PCR tests a day, one of the highest rates globally.

PCR tests, which detect infection earlier, will still be required for some cases, in order to help scientists track new variants. Ontario in Canada brought in similar rules at the end of December.

As Dr Paul Moss, immunologist at Birmingham University, told me it was unsurprising that the government wanted to reduce PCR use, as infection numbers were soaring.

“The scale of infection globally is so high that the gold standard of a PCR test is increasingly hard to maintain,” he said.

It is hotly debated when testing should end altogether. Back in July, Jenny Harries, head of the UK Health Security Agency, told a committee of MPs looking into the NHS Test and Trace system that the role of rapid testing was being reviewed as to whether it was an “effective and essential health intervention going forward”.

Hospital admission numbers, balanced with the numbers of NHS and care staff off sick, will be the main considerations for the cabinet when assessing how long to keep in place the Plan B rules in England over the coming weeks.

But case numbers give them the early indication of what hospital numbers may be coming down the track.

This is a signal of the direction of travel in managing the pandemic. Not every case of Omicron, which is highly transmissible and less severe than previous waves, can now be recorded and tracked, with huge ongoing resource.

But there is no guarantee that with another variant, testing won’t need to be ramped up again.

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