NHS and care homes in England to pause routine COVID-19 testing

Most hospital patients and care home residents in England will now no longer be required to undertake regular asymptomatic testing for COVID-19 unless they develop symptoms. This is in accordance with updated guidance from the Department of Health and Social Care (“DHSC”) published on 24 August 2022 (“The Guidance”). The Guidance takes effect from 31 August 2022. As a result, NHS and social care staff will also now not be offered lateral flow tests unless they fall sick.

Why is the UK Government doing this?

The Government said UK COVID-19 rates have fallen, meaning most testing could now be temporarily paused. It said individuals would continue to be protected through vaccination and antiviral treatments and it would keep the situation under close review. Health Secretary Steve Barclay said:

“This reflects the fact case rates have fallen and the risk of transmission has reduced, though we will continue to closely monitor the situation and work with sectors to resume testing should it be needed.”

It is thought that the forthcoming autumn booster vaccine programme, along with antiviral treatments, would protect those at greatest risk from severe COVID-19. Furthermore, COVID-19 infection rates have been falling across England over the last month and the Government said it expects prevalence to remain low following the most recent wave, caused by the BA.4 and BA.5 variants of Omicron.

What is changing under the new rules?

The Guidance from DHSC means that routine asymptomatic COVID-19 testing of staff and existing patients or residents would be paused in the following settings:

  • the NHS
  • adult social care and hospice services
  • parts of the prison estate and some places of detention
  • certain domestic abuse refuges and homelessness settings

However, The Guidance will not affect new admissions into care homes and hospices, who will continue to be tested for COVID-19. In addition, so will patients with weakened immune systems who are admitted to hospital or transferred between wards.

What is the reaction?

However not everybody is as optimistic as the Government. The Royal College of Nursing (“RCN”) is concerned about the pause. Patricia Marquis, RCN Director for England, said:

“Cases of COVID-19 may well be falling but this virus has still not gone away, and it is vital that there is continued vigilance to ensure patients and nursing staff are not put at risk. Nursing staff must continue to have access to free testing and high-quality personal protective equipment. We have all come a long way and must not risk any backwards step when health services are already under enormous pressure.”

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