Covid testing rules will be relaxed as part of efforts to shorten isolation periods and ease the staffing shortages crippling Britain, The Telegraph understands.
Fears are growing that staff absences have become as big a problem as Covid itself, with bin collections delayed, trains cancelled and 17 hospitals in Greater Manchester announcing on Tuesday that they would be suspending some non-urgent surgery, with 15 per cent of staff off sick.
Millions of people who test positive on lateral flow devices will be told they do not need to take follow-up PCR tests, which currently delay the official start of isolation for hundreds of thousands of people.
Health officials have drawn up plans to limit PCR tests to those with symptoms of Covid, allowing people who are asymptomatic – around 40 per cent of cases – to return to work more quickly. More than 1.2 million people are isolating after testing positive for Covid in the last week, with hundreds of thousands more waiting for tests or results.
The changes, expected on Wednesday, come as more than half a dozen NHS hospital trusts have declared critical incidents. Call handlers at North East Ambulance Service were told in an internal memo to advise heart attack patients to get a lift to hospital, rather than wait for a 999 response.
Meanwhile, offices remained largely empty on the first working day of the new year and schools said that staff shortages in coming days could further damage children’s education with as many as one in five staff missing at the start of the term.
At a Downing Street press conference on Tuesday night, Boris Johnson conceded that staff shortages were causing "serious disruption". He said there was "no escaping" the problem, but stressed that it was better than the devastation caused by a national lockdown.
Announcing the extension of his "Plan B" restrictions, he said: "We have a chance to ride out this omicron wave without shutting down our country once again. We can keep our schools and our businesses open, and we can find a way to live with this virus. But the weeks ahead are going to be challenging – both here in the UK and across the world."
On Tuesday night, MPs said there was a danger that "the cure is worse than the disease", with the numbers self-isolating crippling the country’s infrastructure. There were also calls for the isolation period to be cut to five days, in line with the US and France.
Mr Johnson said that, from next week, 100,000 critical workers in areas such as food processing, transport and the Border Force would be offered daily lateral flow tests.
Currently those without symptoms who test positive on a lateral flow are asked to order a PCR test and can only begin their isolation period when they receive the second result, effectively forcing them to isolate for longer than seven days.
Last week, the Government’s booking site repeatedly ran out of slots and home tests as it struggled to keep up with demand. But even when the system is working normally, people who test positive on a lateral flow normally have to wait several days to obtain their PCR result.
Ministers announced changes to the isolation period before Christmas, which meant that those who tested negative on their sixth and seventh day could be released from isolation on day seven instead of day 10.
MPs and business leaders on Wednesday night warned that isolation was having a devastating impact on their industries, with some calling for the isolation time to be reduced.
Steve Baker, the deputy chairman of the Covid Recovery Group, said: "It does seem to me there is now a danger the cure is worse than the disease. I’m extremely concerned about the impact of people isolating with extremely minor to no symptoms and what that means for the conduct of ordinary life."
Sir Roger Gale, the veteran Tory MP, said: "The effect of omicron on staffing is as serious, if not more serious, than the virus itself."
Craig Mackinlay, another Tory MP, said: "I think it’s time to start lifting plan B". He also called for the quarantine period to be cut from seven days to five, warning that "we’re almost facing a semi-lockdown because of people being off work who are perfectly well".
On Tuesday, Richard Walker, the managing director of Iceland supermarkets, called for self-isolation to be scrapped entirely for vaccinated workers testing positive for Covid.
He said: "We need to abolish self-isolation. I am not a medical expert, and maybe we need to taper it down to five days isolation first, but we have to learn to live with Covid and get off this regime. We don’t stop the world for flu. We don’t shut everything down for that."
The economy, he said, had become "collateral damage", adding that he had had to temporarily shut down two stores out of 1,000 at New Year to cope with staff absences running as high as 40 per cent at one outlet. In total, 3,300 staff were absent out of a workforce of 30,000.
Tim Martin, the chairman of the Wetherspoon pub chain, said: "We should cut self-isolation to five days. On balance, it makes sense. You can’t eliminate risk completely, but the risks of five days are small and the risk of public and private sclerosis from longer isolation rules is far greater."
On Tuesday, there were a record 218,724 cases, including a backlog of 70,000 which came from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales in recent days.
Map of UK’s seven-day Covid-19 infection rate, by local authority
The latest figures showed that the number of people admitted to hospital was stable, with 1,881 daily admissions compared with 1,819 the day before and a peak of 2,370 on Dec 29. The total number in hospital rose by six per cent, from 14,210 to 15,044.
A UK Health Security Agency spokesman said: "The UK’s testing programme is the biggest in Europe, with over 400 million tests carried out since the start of the pandemic.
"Those testing positive with a lateral flow test should take a confirmatory PCR test as guidelines advise. We continue to review PCR availability and continue to make more PCR booking slots available every day."