Tougher testing rules imposed to curb the spread of Omicron will be ripped up this week
PCR tests will be scrapped for people arriving in the UK in another overhaul of Covid testing rules 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 first detected in South Africa.
But ministers agreed to axe these curbs and change the rules back to how they were before Omicron surged following a meeting of the Government’s Covid-O committee today.
The Prime Minister told MPs that 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.
In a statement in the Commons, Mr Johnson said Omicron was less severe than previous variants but he warned that hospital admissions were rising rapidly – doubling every nine days.
Case rates are also doubling every week among the over-60s, which he said was “potentially of greatest concern” as this would increase the pressure on the NHS.
He confirmed that ministers had agreed to stick with plan B measures for another three weeks.
The restrictions, which include working from home and mandatory masks in many indoor settings, will be reviewed before they “sunset” on January 26.
Downing Street confirmed MPs would get a vote on extending Plan B measures if the Government deems restrictions need to continue.
The PM set out changes to travel testing rules from Friday, which will make winter holidays cheaper for families.
He told MPs: “When the Omicron variant was first identified we rightly introduced travel restrictions to slow its arrival in our country.
“But now, Omicron is so prevalent these measures have a limited impact on the growth in cases while continuing to pose significant cost to our travel industry.
“So I can announce that in England from 4am on Friday, we will be scrapping the pre-departure test, which discourages many from travelling for fear of being trapped overseas and incurring in significant extra expenses.
“We will also be lifting the requirement to self-isolate on arrival until received a negative PCR, returning instead to the system we had in October last year where those arriving in England will need to take a lateral flow test no later than the end of day two and if positive, a further PCR test.”
The new rules apply to those who are fully vaccinated – which means you have had two jabs.
Travel rules for the unvaccinated remain the same. People who have not had both jabs must still take a pre- departure test, self isolate for 10 days, and take PCR tests on days 2 and 8 after returning to the UK.
While the UK Government only decides the rules for England, foreign travel rules have been agreed on a four-nation basis throughout the pandemic.
Therefore any changes are likely to apply to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland at the same time.
It comes as the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) also confirmed a shake-up of domestic testing rules as the Government battles to prevent staff shortages due to rocketing infection rates.
From January 11, asymptomatic people who test positive for Covid using a lateral flow will no longer be required to take a confirmatory PCR test.
People without symptoms will have to isolate immediately after a positive result rather than waiting for their PCR.
The idea is to cut the amount of time people are in isolation and to reduce pressure on the testing system.
Officials explained that it was a temporary measure which will be in place while Covid rates are so high.
Confirmatory PCR tests were used to ensure people were not getting false positives from lateral flows, which are not as accurate as the gold-standard PCR tests.
But officials said the “vast majority” of people with positive LFD results can be confident they have the virus when Covid levels are so high.
A record-breaking one in 15 people had Covid in England last week – with nearly 3.3 million in private households estimated to have the virus.
The NHS has been under significant pressure from sky-high infection rates and staff shortages, with a series of trusts declaring critical incidents.
AFP via Getty Images)
Labour’s Angela Rayner, deputising for party leader Keir Starmer after he tested positive for Covid, challenged the PM over the pressures on the health service.
She told the Commons: “Isn’t it time for the Prime Minister to be straight with people and give a frank assessment of the state of our NHS?
“He mentions the use of the army, but how many trusts have declared a critical incident and what does the Prime Minister plan to do about it?
“People in the north east are being told to call a cab or phone a friend if they’re suffering a suspected heart attack or stroke. That’s shocking.
“Even before Omicron hit, thousands of suspected heart attack and stroke victims in England were forced to wait over one hour and 40 minutes for their ambulance.”
Mr Johnson replied: “Everybody should get an ambulance who needs one, that’s why we’ve invested £55 million more in the ambulance service, there are 500 more ambulance staff now than there were in 2018.”
He went on to defend the Government’s investment in the NHS.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.