Covid test shortages undermine Boris Johnson’s plea for ‘cautious’ socialising3 min read

UK prime minister Boris Johnsons plea for cautious” new year celebrations in England has been undermined by problems with the availability of lateral flow and PCR tests — a vital tool in stemming the spread of Covid-19 infection.

Pharmacies said high demand for lateral flow tests was outstripping supply, while Sir Roger Gale, Tory MP for North Thanet, wrote on Twitter: “Kent appears to be in lateral flow and PCR test gridlock.”

After speaking to Sajid Javid, health secretary, about the problem, Gale said he had been told: “There is a world shortage of lateral flow & PCR test supplies, but we are buying all that’s available.”

The government online ordering platform said on Wednesday morning there were “no home delivery slots left for lateral flow tests right now” and also no available slots for PCR bookings.

Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, told the Financial Times: “The planning is not there, the communication and messaging is not consistent and that’s why it creates a chaotic situation.”

Andrew Lane, chair of the National Pharmacy Association, said pharmacies were running out of daily supplies “within two hours”, driven by the festive season surge in demand.

The UK Health Security Agency said: “Despite unprecedented demand, we are continuing to supply millions of rapid lateral flow tests every day.” Delivery capacity had doubled to 900,000 test kits a day since mid-December, it said.

Alastair Buxton, director of NHS services at the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, said deliveries from the UKHSA’s wholesaler had been “exhausted” after being “paused” over the Christmas break between Friday afternoon and Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, the latest data from NHS England showed there were 10,462 people in hospital in England with Covid as of Wednesday morning.

That is 48 per cent higher than a week earlier and the highest number since March 1. During the second wave of coronavirus, the number peaked at 34,336 on January 18 this year. Covid cases in England hit a record high of 117,093 on Tuesday.

Johnson warned that the “overwhelming majority” of people in intensive care units with Covid had not received a booster shot and that the Omicron variant continued to pose “real problems”.

Speaking on a visit to a vaccine centre on Wednesday, the prime minister urged people in England to get booster jabs and said that hospitals were under pressure even though Omicron was “obviously milder than the Delta variant”.

Johnson has not introduced new legal restrictions in England to stop the spread of Omicron over the new year period, but urged people to celebrate “with caution”.

Health chiefs are also warning of acute staff shortages in hospitals, sparking a debate about whether England should follow the US in cutting the period of Covid isolation from seven to a minimum of just five days.

The government is so far resisting that idea: health minister Chloe Smith said the isolation period had just been cut from 10 to a minimum of seven days and there were “no plans to change that further”.

Instead, the prime minister remains focused on the vaccine booster campaign as the principal means of protecting people.

“I’m sorry to say this, but the overwhelming majority of people who are currently ending up in intensive care in our hospitals are people who are not boosted,” he said.

“I’ve talked to doctors who say the numbers are running up to 90 per cent of people in intensive care.” Government insiders said this figure was based on anecdotal evidence from some NHS trusts.

Other parts of the UK have imposed tougher restrictions than in England over the new year period. John Swinney, Scotland’s deputy first minister, urged Scots not to travel to England for parties on December 31.

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