Boris Johnson has revised a number of testing policies in an attempt to reduce the disruption caused by Covid isolation measures.
In a boost to the aviation industry, travellers to England will no longer need to take a pre-departure test – an increasingly pointless measure when cases in UK are already so high.
Ministers have also announced that asymptomatic individuals who receive a positive lateral flow test can start isolation straight away, instead of waiting for a PCR test. This should reduce isolation time, helping to alleviate the staff shortage crisis.
Additionally, the government is ramping up testing for 100,00 key workers, who will now be required to take daily tests for the next five weeks. The hope is that infections will be caught early, thus avoiding spread amongst colleagues although it could also result in more asymptomatic individuals being off work.
While these are all positive moves, what is the longer term strategy for testing? And when will testing stop?
Around a third of those with Covid don’t experience any symptoms. Which begs the question, at what point does asymptomatic testing do more harm than good? And should we still be forcing those who aren’t unwell to isolate?
As Dr Max Pemberton, psychiatrist and medical writer, argues: “The nation has sleepwalked into a gigantic, expensive mass-screening programme – without properly considering whether it is justified or when it might stop.”
The government was under huge pressure to ramp up testing at the start of the pandemic, and rightly so. Without vaccines, it was imperative to know who had contracted the virus.
But much has changed since then. Over 95% of the adult population is now thought to have some immunity to the virus.
As Professor Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University puts it: “The horrific scenes that we saw a year ago of intensive care units being full, lots of people dying prematurely, that is now history, in my view, and I think we should be reassured that that’s likely to continue.”
That doesn’t mean the virus will go away. But we should be allowed to return to pre-Covid life now that the virus is endemic. As Paul Hunter, a professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, says: “We’re going to have to let people who are positive with Covid go about their normal lives as they would do with any other cold.”
Per head of population, the UK has now conducted more than double the number of tests as the French or Americans have, and over four times that of the Germans. But once the virus becomes endemic – as seems to be the case – is mass-testing still justifiable?
Dr Pemberton says we must loosen isolation rules for medics: “Just before Christmas an entire week passed in which not a single junior doctor was working on the ward where I practise,” he explains. All had either tested positive, lived with someone with Omicron or were waiting for a PCR test result. “But not one of these doctors was actually ill.”
Similarly, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has called for a halt to the routine testing of children in schools, suggesting pupils should simply stay at home if unwell.
Viruses such as influenza, RSV and enterovirus spread through schools every winter. If we screened all pupils for them and enforced isolation, we might prevent a number of deaths in the overall population. But we don’t because to do so would be incredible disruptive, and it wouldn’t feel like a proportionate response.
The big question now facing the government is when to call a halt to testing. After the last two years of scaring the public, convincing everyone that those who test positive with Covid should we allowed to get on with their lives will require a huge shift in thinking.