Boris Johnson warned of serious challenges ahead in tackling the omicron Covid-19 variant, as he eased testing rules to free up capacity to cope with a virus caseload that’s surging across the U.K.
Pre-departure tests for vaccinated travelers entering Britain will be scrapped from Friday, while people who test positive using rapid home kits will no longer need to take so-called PCR tests to confirm the result from Jan. 11.
“Thanks to the sheer size of the omicron wave, we still need to take steps to ensure our testing capacity reaches those who need it most,” Johnson told the House of Commons on Wednesday. The U.K. is “experiencing the fastest growth in Covid cases that we have ever known,” he said, while hospital admissions are “rising rapidly, doubling around every nine days.”
An additional 194,747 new cases were reported across the U.K. on Wednesday — another daily record if Tuesday’s data, which included a backlog of cases from over the New Year holiday, is excluded.
Even so, Johnson reiterated his plan to rely on light-touch regulations to manage omicron, with his cabinet formally approving his plan for England to stick to “Plan B” measures on Wednesday. That is despite warnings from National Health Service leaders that hospitals are coming under severe strain.
More than 20 hospital trusts are currently reporting “critical incidents,” his office said, while Johnson warned that “potentially of greatest concern” is the rapid rise in cases among older and more vulnerable people, “with the obvious risk that this will continue to increase the pressures on our NHS.”
The prime minister would likely trigger fresh fury from members of his ruling Conservative Party if he had to bring in tighter regulations, and in Parliament he repeatedly said he’s confident they won’t be needed.
Tory MP Steve Baker pressed Johnson over how long rules he likened to the “sword of Damocles” would be hanging over businesses and investors, while his colleague Mark Harper asked for an “exit strategy” from curbs.
Current “Plan B” rules — including compulsory face masks in most public indoor venues, and guidance to work from home — will be in place until Jan. 26, when Johnson said the measures will be reviewed.
“Whatever the situation may be — and I’m confident it will be much better — we will continue with the fundamental tools that we have; that is vaccination, therapeutics and testing,” Johnson said.
Meanwhile the change to domestic testing rules means the government will effectively now be relying on people reporting their results from home tests to track the path of the pandemic.
It is estimated that about a million people report their lateral flow test results every day; of those testing positive, between 60% and 80% then go on to meet the current requirement to get PCR confirmation.
The question is how many people will continue to report their test results once they are no longer told to get a PCR test, and knowing that logged rapid test results are now the key component in the official test-and-trace program.
Even so, scientists generally welcomed the change given the high prevalence of the virus. “This is a sensible approach as long as positive results are reported and the lateral flow kits are in good supply,” Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, said in a statement.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)