All the new Covid testing and travel rules announced this week as Omicron cases surge



A blizzard of Covid rule changes has been announced in the last week as Omicron surges.

Follow-up PCR tests have been temporarily axed for people with no symptoms to get more capacity into the system.

And rules on travelling into the UK have been relaxed, since the variant is now dominant in Britain anyway.

On top of this, daily tests were announced for 100,000 critical workers in England in a bid to tackle crippling staff shortages.

And changes have also been announced this week for school pupils, with masks returning in classrooms and heads being warned they could have to merge groups.

As usual it can be quite difficult to wrap your head round so many changes at once. So we take you through them step by step.

Follow-up PCR tests temporarily axed for millions

Follow-up PCR tests will be temporarily axed throughout the UK for people who get Covid with no symptoms.

The UK Health Security Agency agreed a change in policy for millions of people who test positive for the virus by lateral flow.

The change will take effect from January 11 in England, and from tomorrow in Wales and Scotland. It is only temporary, and will be reversed when the worst of the Omicron wave is over.

Currently, anyone who tests positive using a lateral flow test (LFT) must get a follow-up PCR test to confirm their result.

Following the rule change, people who test positive with no symptoms – said to account for around 40% of people with Covid – will no longer need this follow-up PCR test.

Officials hope the changes will ease the strain on the testing system
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They will still have to isolate for at least seven days, but only from the date of their positive lateral flow test.

People with Covid symptoms will still be told to get a PCR test, regardless of their lateral flow result.

The change – last performed in January-March 2021 – will effectively cut the isolation time because it takes a couple of days to get and await the result of a PCR test. This could ease crippling staff shortages including in the NHS.

It will also ease the demand for PCR tests after people struggled to get appointments in the Omicron wave.

But it has raised fears about detection of Covid falling just as the virus is running rampant, because PCRs are what the government use to trace the spread of new variants.

No10 admitted the PCR test changes are about “what is the best use of our testing system at a time of high prevalence”.

People who want to claim the £500 Test and Trace Support Payment will still need a follow-up PCR.

Pre-departure travel tests scrapped for the jabbed

PCR tests will be scrapped for double-jabbed people arriving in the UK from Friday.

Boris Johnson imposed tougher testing requirements on travellers when Omicron emerged in November as he battled to halt the spread of the variant, which was first detected in South Africa.

But ministers are agreed to axe these curbs and bring travel testing rules back to how they were before Omicron surged.

The Prime Minister told MPs the requirement for pre-departure tests for those arriving in the UK would be axed from 4am on Friday.

And ‘day two’ PCR tests after arrival in the UK will be replaced with cheaper lateral flow test.

The requirement to self isolate until a result has been received has also been scrapped.

However, people who are not fully vaccinated must still take a pre departure test, self isolate for 10 days on arrival, and take post-arrival PCR tests on days 2 and 8.

Erin Horn looking in a mirror while taking a Lateral Flow Test as children arrive at Outwood Academy in Doncaster
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School pupils wear masks and classes could be merged

School pupils in England returned this week with a series of updated rules.

Secondary school pupils are being asked to do a lateral flow test on site on their first day back to school.

If they test positive, they are sent home to do a confirmatory PCR test. If it is negative then they can carry on with their school day.

Secondary, college and university students and staff should then continue to test themselves at home twice a week.

Meanwhile secondary school pupils are now being told to wear masks in the classroom, as well as in communal areas.

The advice will be in place until January 26, when Plan B regulations are due to expire.

And ministers have suggested sending groups of children home or merging classes if necessary to keep schools open.

If your child tests positive, you are advised to do daily lateral flow tests for a week but you do not have to stay at home.

Staff at Park Lane Academy process lateral flow tests this week
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100,000 critical workers to get daily tests

Workers in critical industries will be told to take daily tests to prevent mass staffing shortages caused by the Omicron surge.

From January 10, 100,000 critical workers in areas from food processing to transport and border force will be asked to do lateral flow tests every working day.

There is no full list yet of the industries which would be included in the scheme, but businesses involved will be contacted directly.

No10 appeared to suggest it would not include supermarkets.

Plan B continues for three more weeks

Today was the day for England’s Covid Plan B to be reviewed, and either extended, wound down or made stricter.

Boris Johnson chose to extend the current rules, but without introducing any new ones, by three weeks.

There will be a further review before the regulations expire on January 26.

But Plan B could be extended beyond that date, with No10 not ruling it out. If so MPs will get a vote before the change happens.

Plan B asks people to work from home where possible, and imposes mandatory masks in shops and public transport.

It also puts a legal requirement on nightclubs and other crowded or large venues to demand ‘Covid passes’ from punters – either showing they’ve been vaccinated or had a recent negative test.

No10 doesn’t rule out more measures – or extending Plan B beyond January 26

The PM’s spokesman said: “As throughout the pandemic, we don’t rule out anything further given it’s impossible to predict the course of a global pandemic”.

He confirmed MPs will get a vote before January 26 if the Plan B measures have to be extended beyond that date.

Isolation is still at least seven days – including in Scotland

As a default, people who test positive for Covid should isolate for 10 days.

But in all four UK nations, they can now leave isolation after seven days – if lateral flow tests on days 6 and 7 come back negative.

England was the first to announce the change just before Christmas, followed by Wales and Northern Ireland.

Scotland finally announced a similar change today.

Volunteers hand out boxes of Covid-19 rapid antigen Lateral Flow Tests in north London
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AFP via Getty Images)

But there’s little chance of isolation being cut to five days

No10 suggested there was little chance of the UK cutting isolation from seven days to five.

MPs had called for the move after it was applied to asymptomatic people in the US.

But the PM’s spokesman said there is a “significant chance” people are still infectious if isolation is less than seven days, and “leaving isolation would present a public health risk”.

Other changes in Scotland

Nicola Sturgeon announced the Covid self-isolation period will be cut from ten days to seven in Scotland.

Close contacts who are under 18 or boosted will also no longer be forced to isolate, but must take regular LFTs.

Both changes bring Scotland in line with changes that were introduced in England before Christmas.

A further £55m will also be made available to support businesses struggling to cope with restrictions in Scotland.

The First Minister said: “This phase of the pandemic is possibly the most challenging so far.

“The most infectious variant so far is creating a volume of cases that, notwithstanding its possibly reduced severity, still has the potential to overwhelm us.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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