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By British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT)

Government Temporarily Suspends PCR Tests To Confirm A Positive Lateral Flow Result

4 min read

The requirement to order a PCR test when testing positive for Covid-19 with a lateral flow is being temporarily suspended to try and reduce the amount of time people need to self-isolate.

The UK Health Security Agency has confirmed that from Tuesday 11 January, anybody who does not have Covid symptoms but returns a positive result with a self-administered LFT can begin their quarantine period immediately, rather than waiting for a confirmatory result from a lab-tested PCR.

It is hoped the move will shorten the self-isolation period by one or two days and help ease staff shortages being felt in the NHS and other critical industries.

The government are asking anyone who receives a positive lateral flow test to report it on, and they will be contacted by NHS Test and Trace so that their close contacts can be found and told to self-isolate.

People who develop one of the three Covid-19 symptoms specificed by the NHS, including a high temperature, persistent cough, or loss of taste and smell, are still required to order a PCR test, stay at home, and self-isolate until they get the result back.

Health minister Gillian Keegan confirmed earlier that around one million people are currently quarantining at home as the wave of coronavirus infections, driven by the Omicron variant, has seen the UK register 1.27million cases in the past week, including a record 218,724 yesterday.

Anyone who tests positive will be able to leave self-isolation 7 days after the date of their initial positive test if they receive two negative LFD results, 24 hours apart, on days 6 and 7, otherwise they must wait 10 days.

The UKHSA said the measure was "temporary", and the chances of a false positive from a lateral flow were "very low" because Covid-19 is so prevalent.

A similar approach was adopted this time last year, when there was also a high prevalence of infection, with confirmatory PCRs were temporarily paused and reintroduced in March 2021 following a reduction in cases.

There are exceptions to the revised rules, such as those eligible for the £500 Test and Trace Support Payment, who will still be asked to take a confirmatory PCR before they can access the financial support.

Senior NHS figures have said they would support the move to a greater reliance on LFTs, “as long as it is based on the science”.

"Hospitals who have declared critical incidents, for example, are essentially reaching out to staff who are on leave, on rest days or even recently retired and asking them to come back to wards," Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation told BBC Radio 4's Today Programme. 

"The situation is desperate – any way of getting staff back into hospital is a good thing."

But there is concern that the shorter isolation period could mean that many return to work while they may be still infectious. 

"That's completely counterproductive because that is going to mean more sickness in the hospital and for staff, so this can't be led by politics or blind hope – it has to be led by the science," Taylor continued. 

"If the science says it is possible for people to go back to work earlier, then of course NHS leaders will want that to be possible."

University of Warwick’s Dr Mike Tildesley, who sits on a Sage sub-committee, said that while the move meant some sequencing data made possible by the more detailed PCR test might be lost, because not all tests were sequenced anyway, the move represented a balanced trade for shorter isolation periods. 

"Hopefully we won't be losing the levels of information that we already have in this country that enables us to identify variants and so forth," he told BBC breakfast. 

But he said it was "very, very important" people still recorded their results from lateral flows if any changes were brought in regarding dropping some PCRs.

UKHSA chief executive Dr Jenny Harries said: “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.”

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