Explained: New PCR test rules brought in as Omicron cases surge

A sign informing customers that there are no lateral flow test kits available a Boots Pharmacy in Bracknell, Berkshire.

A sign informing customers that there are no lateral flow test kits available on the door of a pharmacy Picture date: Wednesday January 5, 2022. - Credit: PA

People who test positive by a lateral flow will not have to take a follow-up PCR test, under temporary new rules coming into force next week.

The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) announced the rules surrounding when to take a PCR test are changing on January 11 to combat staff absences.

The new approach reflects similar changes made in January 2021 when there was a similar prevalence of infection.

Here is what you need to know:

When do you need to get a PCR?

People who have a positive lateral flow result but have no symptoms will be asked to not take a confirmatory PCR test. Instead, they will be required to self-isolate immediately — reducing the time they spend in isolation.

Anyone who develops Covid symptoms will be asked to get a PCR test as well as beginning their isolation immediately.

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People who test positive will be able to leave self-isolation seven days after their initial positive test if they have negative lateral flow test results on days six and seven.

Why are the rules changing?

Currently, people without symptoms who test positive on a lateral flow are asked to do a PCR test and only begin their isolation when they receive the PCR result, forcing them to isolate for longer than a week.

This new approach is designed to help combat staff absences in key parts of the economy and health service, allowing people to return to work earlier.

UKHSA bosses said that while levels are high, the majority of people with positive lateral flow tests can be confident that they have Covid.

And the chances of a false positive are very low — meaning using a PCR test to double-check the result was not so important.

Who takes PCR tests now?

Anyone who develops one of the three main symptoms should stay at home and self-isolate and take a PCR test.

These symptoms are a high temperature, a new, continuous cough, or a a loss or change to your sense of smell or taste.

They must self-isolate if they get a positive test result, even if they have had a recent negative lateral flow test.

Around one million people in England who are at risk of becoming seriously ill from Covid have been identified as being potentially eligible for new treatments. This group should use the priority PCR tests they will be sent when they have symptoms as it will enable prioritised laboratory handling.

People who are eligible for the £500 Test and Trace Support Payment (TTSP) will still be asked to take a confirmatory PCR if they receive a positive LFD result, to enable them to access financial support.

As will people participating in research or surveillance programmes may still be asked to take a follow-up PCR test, according to the research or surveillance protocol.