The rules around Covid testing and isolation could be eased slightly in a bid to reduce staff shortages which are severely affecting key industries.
The plans, drawn up by health officials and expected to be announced on Wednesday, will mean those who test positive on lateral flow tests will no longer be required to take a confirmatory PCR test, which delays their isolation start date.
PCR tests will be limited to symptomatic cases only, leaving those who don’t have symptoms - making up more than one third of cases - with fewer days in isolation and an earlier return to work.
Rising Omicron cases have seen several industries hit by increased workforce absences across the country leading to a staff shortage crisis. The government forecast that 25% of workforces could be forced into self-isolation by the fast-spreading strain.
Critical incidents have been declared at several NHS trusts, while others have postponed some non-urgent surgery and appointments due to a shortage of staff.
The staffing situation in hospitals is said to be “almost impossible”, according to Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation representing health bodies.
Care Minister Gillian Keegan acknowledged government scientists are "looking at" whether the PCR requirement should be scrapped and said if a decision is made it will be announced through the "proper channels later on today".
Meanwhile, care group boss Mike Padgham has called on the government to set up an emergency volunteer army for social care amid fears that providers could run out of staff, saying the staffing challenge “is now at the worst it has been throughout the pandemic”.
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School leaders have also warned that staff shortages in the new term could disrupt children's education and cause a “stressful time” ahead.
Some schools are reporting that around one in five staff members could be missing at the start of term.
Boris Johnson acknowledged during a press briefing on Tuesday that health services will be “temporarily overwhelmed” as the NHS moves “to a war footing”, adding that staff shortages in several other industries were causing “serious disruption”.
But the prime minister resisted calls to cut the isolation period to five days, in line with France and the US, as MPs warned of the crippling effect on the country’s infrastructure.
Instead, Mr Johnson announced a daily testing requirement for critical workers in essential services including in civil, nuclear and other power generation, air traffic control, meat processing and food supply chains.
He also confirmed England was to remain under Plan B Covid restrictions for at least three more weeks in a bid to “ride out” Omicron “without shutting down” the country.
On Tuesday, the UK for the first time recorded more than 200,000 new coronavirus infections in a day, but the figures contain some delayed reporting from over the holiday period.
A total of 15,044 people were in hospital with Covid-19 as of 8am on January 4, according to NHS England.
This is the highest number since February 18 and is an increase of 58% from a week earlier.