Britain and Israel are overhauling their COVID-19 testing policies as governments seek to reduce the burden on laboratories and struggle with tight supplies of kits amid soaring infection rates fuelled by the Omicron variant.
This time last year, vaccines offered hope that the pandemic could be over by now. But Omicron has brought new challenges, including overloading public health systems, even if – as many scientists say – it leads to less severe illness than the earlier Delta variant.
Demand for testing kits has squeezed supply. Last week, queues formed outside pharmacies in Spain’s capital Madrid in what has become a common scene since Omicron began driving up infections. Madrid, whose conservative government has put supporting the hospitality sector at the top of its agenda, is opting for increased testing and no restrictions on socialising.
A surge in demand for tests has led to issues in Italy and Britain. The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said that 100,000 more PCR booking slots per day had been made available since mid-December and that capacity had been doubled to 900,000 PCR and LFD test kits a day.
People in England who test positive for COVID-19 on rapid lateral flow device (LFD) tests will not need to confirm their results with a follow-up PCR test if they are not showing symptoms, the UKHSA said on Wednesday.
A record-high one in 15 people had COVID-19 in England in the week ending Dec. 31, estimates published by the Office for National Statistics showed on Wednesday.
“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,” said agency Chief Executive Dr Jenny Harries.
PCR tests are processed in a lab and can be used to determine which variant a person has, while a LFD can be used at home and gives an indication of infectivity within half an hour.