No10’s scrapping of free Covid tests combined with an expansion to the NHS list of symptoms will trigger a ‘free for all’ of staff absences, experts warned today.
The vast majority of employees in England are now unable to get any free swabs as part of Boris Johnson’s ‘Living With Covid’ strategy.
But health chiefs advise people to ‘stay at home’ if they have any of the 12 newly-recognised symptoms, which can be ‘very similar’ to ones brought on by colds or the flu.
It means, in the absence of a test, people suffering cold-like symptoms will be left to decide ‘whether or not they stay at home and for how long’, unions say.
Lucy Moreton, a professional officer at the ISU, the union for borders, immigration and customs, warned that it is ‘inevitable’ staff will be off work with mild symptoms if they are unable to confirm whether or not they have Covid.
Unions also fear the chaos will only drive transmission up, with Covid levels already at a pandemic high in England and one in 12 people thought to be currently infected.
Only the elderly, most vulnerable and health and social care workers can access tests for free. Tests are, however, available at high street retailers such as Boots for £2.
UK Health Security Agency data shows another 143,382 positive Covid tests were logged over the weekend, down by a third in a week. But the drop in cases comes as the number of tests taken in the UK plummeted to its lowest level in a year (shown in graph)
No10’s scrapping of free Covid tests combined with record high infection rates is threatening to cause chaos in workplaces across the UK. Pictured: Covid rapid antigen test
England’s mass swabbing regime — thought to cost up to £2billion-a-month — was ditched under Boris Johnson’s ‘Living With Covid’ strategy.
It marked one of the final steps on the route back to normal life, after mandatory self-isolation rules were scrapped in mid-February.
Workers who test positive no longer have to legally self-isolate, although they are still advised to ‘stay at home and avoid contact with other people’. The NHS also says that they should take ‘extra care’ to avoid making contact with anyone at higher risk of the virus.
Covid cases plummet by a THIRD following the end of free testing
Britain’s daily Covid cases plunged by a third over the weekend as testing dropped to the lowest level in a year in the first official figures since England ditched its free swabbing regime.
UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) statistics show another 143,382 positive Covid tests were logged on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, compared to the 215,001 recorded over the same three-day spell last week.
Meanwhile, Covid deaths today fell by three per cent week-on-week, while daily hospital admissions increased by four per cent. Both measures tend to lag two to three weeks behind the trend in cases.
Today’s drop in daily confirmed cases coincides with plummeting testing rates, sparked by No10’s decision to axe free tests forever.
The Government’s daily case numbers are solely based on people swabbing themselves and registering the results with the system. Separate Covid-tracking estimates, which show infections have hit pandemic highs and are yet to slow down, are based on tens of thousands of random tests.
Downing Street today insisted the universal free testing programme will not be coming back in England, claiming the £2billion-a-month lateral flow spending was ‘simply unsustainable’. Only health and care workers, the elderly and the vulnerable are still eligible for free swabs.
Scotland will end its offer next month while Wales is to stop handing out the swabs this summer.
Meanwhile, it was revealed today that the NHS quietly expanded its symptom-list to include body aches, a runny nose and diarrhoea.
Since the start of the pandemic, officials have only accepted three symptoms: a high temperature, a cough and a loss or change to taste or smell, despite other countries and health bodies including up to 14.
NHS Covid advice also says: ‘You can go back to your normal activities when you feel better or do not have a high temperature.’
Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, told The Daily Telegraph that the Government’s strategy could spark chaos.
She said: ‘The Government’s new “Living With Covid” strategy feels like a complete free for all, in which it will be impossible to confirm whether or not symptoms are Covid, leaving individuals to decide whether or not they stay at home and for how long.
‘This confusion is likely to lead to transmission of the illness just as many pupils are preparing to take exams.’
It comes after NHS bosses last week quietly expanded its list of Covid symptoms to acknowledge nine more.
Shortness of breath, feeling tired, an aching body, headache and sore throats are now recognised as signs of the virus, as are a blocked or runny nose, a loss of appetite, diarrhoea, nausea or vomiting.
The decision marked a massive change in the Government’s stance on symptoms, after acknowledging only three for the entirety of the pandemic (a high temperature, a new and continuous cough and a loss or change to taste or smell).
Ms Moreton, from the ISU, told the newspaper that the Home Office advised staff with any of these 12 symptoms to ‘not attend work’.
It is ‘inevitable’ that staff will be off work with mild symptoms and be unable to confirm if they are infected or not, she said.
Meanwhile, Gary Smith, general secretary of the GMB union, argued the list has been extended to a point that it is now ‘almost meaningless’.
He told The Telegraph: ‘Are workers on statutory sick pay really going to pay for a test which may cause them to lose three days’ pay? It seems unlikely.’
Ministers have insisted it is the ‘right’ moment to scrap the mass-testing regime, and the Prime Minister’s official spokesman yesterday insisted the virus tests would not be coming back.
They said: ‘I think we need to look at where we are in the course of this pandemic.
‘We know there is relatively high prevalence of Covid at the moment but because of vaccines, because of therapeutics and other approaches, we are not seeing it have the knock-on impact when it comes to requiring the most intensive hospital treatment.
‘At the same time, the provision of free tests was costing taxpayers £2billion a month and that is simply unsustainable.’
But NHS bosses today warned the health service is battling pressure on an equal scale to that of the January peak.
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘We don’t have a living with Covid plan, we have a living without restrictions plan, which is very different.’
Experts today said daily Covid admissions in England (shown in graph) appear to have peaked. UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) data shows the seven-day average (orange line) for virus hospitalisations has fallen for the first time since the latest Omicron surge took off in mid-February. An average of 2,098 patients were admitted in the week to March 30, and appear to have spiked at an average of 2,116 on March 28
NHS England data shows just 44 per cent of so-called Covid patients were primarily admitted because they were unwell from the virus. The rate has fallen as the virus has become less severe and protection from vaccines has increased. In October, 75 per cent of those admitted were primarily unwell with the virus
He urged the public to do ‘everything that they can’ to avoid spreading the virus, to get vaccinated and recognise the NHS ‘is not going to be able to provide the level of service over the next period that we wanted to’.
Mr Taylor said there are ‘nearly as many patients in hospital now as we had at the peak in January’, which is putting ‘enormous strain’ on the health service, which has around 110,000 vacancies, exhausted staff and ongoing pandemic pressures.
Airport staff shortage chaos could last for MONTHS
Airports across the UK are in chaos today as staff shortages and the start of the post-Covid Easter holiday rush cause huge queues, with lines starting to form at 4.45am at Manchester Airport where local leaders have called for police to help deal with the carnage.
The chaos is the result of a combination of a sudden surge in passenger numbers, with many Britons taking their first foreign holiday since the Covid pandemic began, and low staffing numbers at airports which have not hired extra manpower following years of low demand.
British Airways and Easyjet cancelled 62 and 90 flights respectively yesterday.
The chaos is worst at Manchester airport where some travellers have been jumping over barriers and abandoning their luggage in a desperate attempt to make their flights, according to Nicky Kelvin, head of travel website Points Guy UK.
And the chaos is set to go on throughout the summer because of the delays in processing counter-terror checks needed for new airport staff, with some said to be taking 30 weeks instead of the usual 15 as civil servants work from home.
Paul Charles, chief executive of travel consultancy The PC Agency, said: ‘Airlines are certainly seeing a high level of demand to fly, but are simply unable to cope with that demand due to a lack of resources.
‘It’s a nightmare situation for airlines and airports at the moment.’
Hospitals face the decision of reducing infection control measures and risking more staff and patients catching the virus, or maintaining restrictions and increasing pressures on emergency care, he said.
However, experts today said Covid admissions in England appear to have peaked.
UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) data shows the seven-day average for virus hospitalisations has fallen for the first time since the latest Omicron surge took off in mid-February.
An average of 2,098 patients were admitted in the week to March 30, and appear to have spiked at an average of 2,116 on March 28.
Dr Raghib Ali, an epidemiology researcher at the University of Cambridge, said it is ‘good to see Covid admissions in England may have peaked’.
He noted that the drop would be consistent with cases having peaked around a week ago. Hospitals are still very busy overall but this ‘will help’, Dr Ali said.
But the NHS admits changes to how patients are tested, that came into effect on Friday, ‘might affect’ its data.
Meanwhile, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggest more than 4.1million people in England had the virus on any given day over the week to March 26, equivalent to one in 13 being infected.
The figure is the highest ever recorded in the country, topping the previous peak of 3.7million at the height of the Omicron wave in January. It is also 18 per cent higher than one week earlier.
Statisticians said England’s surge was being driven by the more transmissible version of Omicron, scientifically named BA. Although, ministers admit that ditching the final Covid restrictions last month also fueled the uptick.
Sustained high infection levels are wreaking chaos across the country.
Holidaymakers have faced huge queues at airports and being ‘trapped’ on grounded planes due to increased airport demands, coupled with a lack of resources after not hiring extra manpower following two years of low passenger numbers.
And the week of mass disruption saw more than 1,100 flights cancelled throughout the UK.
The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the NAHT school leaders union said their members had reported a huge amount of Covid-related disruption in schools and colleges over the last few weeks.
The groups added that it was higher than at any other point during the pandemic and that for many members it could prove the ‘final straw.’
They labelled the decision to remove free Covid lateral flow tests for nearly all pupils and staff ‘reckless in the extreme’.