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New rules for PCR testing as demand outstrips supply due to rise of Omicron

London urged to ensure enough kits available as local health officials alter guidance for fully vaccinated close contacts


A sign points to the Covid-19 testing facility at the Queens PEC car park in south Belfast. Credit: Peter Morrison

A sign points to the Covid-19 testing facility at the Queens PEC car park in south Belfast. Credit: Peter Morrison

A sign points to the Covid-19 testing facility at the Queens PEC car park in south Belfast. Credit: Peter Morrison

Calls have been made for the Government to ensure a “reliable” supply of Covid tests amid growing concerns around shortages as new testing guidance was introduced here.

People have now been urged to only book PCR tests when necessary after record demand this week.

A new Covid testing protocol has been issued by the Public Health Agency following a surge in requests and shortage of tests.

Fears have started to rise in England that there could be an unintentional New Year lockdown as workers unable to get tested are forced to stay at home.

Coronavirus Data Graphs

Northern Ireland’s Executive is set to meet on Thursday to discuss potentially imposing further restrictions.

A record 21,000 tests were administered here on Monday alone. On Wednesday the Department of Health reported a further 14 Covid-related deaths and 22,972 new cases of the virus in the five days from midnight on December 23 to midnight on December 28.

This is an average of around 4,600 cases each day, well above the previous daily record of 3,286. In Belfast alone, 4,195 cases were confirmed over the five-day period.

In the last seven days, 17 virus-linked deaths and 30,883 new cases have been recorded locally.

As of Wednesday, 277 Covid patients were in hospitals, with 35 in intensive care, 29 of whom were being ventilated.

Hospitals across the region are at 94% capacity, with the South West Acute Hospital operating over capacity.

It came as the PHA published new arrangements regarding PCR testing to “protect the testing system in Northern Ireland and ensure availability of testing for those who need it”.

Fully-vaccinated close contacts will no longer have to take a PCR test. Instead, they will be advised to take a lateral flow test as soon as possible.

They will have to continue to take daily lateral flow tests until the 10th day after the last date of contact with the positive case. If the test is positive at any time during the 10 days, the PHA has advised they should arrange a PCR test. Unvaccinated people will have to continue to self-isolate for 10 days as before.

Alliance MLA and health committee member Paula Bradshaw said “significant pressure” had been put on testing capacity due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant as she called for the Government to ensure supply of tests.

She said: “It is a good thing that the UK is testing more people than any other country in the world currently, and we are benefiting from that.

“The advice has always been ‘Test, Test, Test’. The concern is that even lateral flow test kits are becoming harder to access. The UK Government must ensure a reliable supply of these and of further PCR tests urgently.

“It is also essential that people follow the guidance to stay at home with symptoms and to test regularly, particularly if they are a close contact of someone testing positive.

“I would also urge people to come forward for their boosters for additional protection.”

There are also growing concerns over the shortage of lateral flow tests being provided to local pharmacies. Gerard Green, chief executive of Community Pharmacy NI, called on the Department of Health to help increase their supply.

He said: “At the moment demand is outstripping supply but we are working with the Department of Health and the Health and Social Care Board to ensure supplies of the lateral flow tests from the department reach pharmacies to meet this demand.

“We understand the lateral flow test kits are in Northern Ireland so we are asking the department and board to put arrangements in place to get them out to pharmacies as quickly as possible.”

Sinn Fein’s Colm Gildernew, who chairs the Stormont health committee, said the general test shortage must be addressed “as an immediate priority if we are to reduce the spread of the virus and protect our health service and our hard-pressed health workers”.

DUP MLA Deborah Erskine also raised concerns about the current testing capabilities.

The news comes ahead of a meeting of the Executive on Thursday to discuss potentially imposing further restrictions.

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