Lack of Covid testing undermines Boris Johnson’s prayer for ‘careful’ socializing

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plea for “cautious” New Year celebrations in England is being undermined by problems with the availability of lateral flow and PCR tests – an important tool in slowing the spread of Covid-19 infection.

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

Gale said there were “no stocks of chemists and no East Kent delivery sites available”, a situation known to many people across the UK trying to book tests.

The government’s online booking platform said Wednesday morning that “there are no home delivery places left for lateral flow tests right now” nor any places available for PCR bookings.

Leyla Hannbeck, executive director of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, told the Financial Times that the delivery of lateral flow tests to pharmacies was “very incoherent.” “The planning is not there, the communication and the messages are not consistent and that is why it creates a chaotic situation,” she said.

Andrew Lane, president of the National Pharmacy Association, said pharmacies were running out of daily supplies “within two hours,” driven by the strong demand for Christmas.

“People want to know if they are negative when they go around to visit their friends and relatives for New Year’s Eve, so there will be a huge increase in demand,” he said. “We need extra supply in the system this week.”

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

But it added: “During periods of extraordinary demand, there may be temporary pauses in ordering or receiving tests to ensure that we manage distribution across the system and support changing requirements for LFD and PCR testing.”

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

“More stock of test kits will have been delivered to pharmacies this morning and they will be able to order more for delivery tomorrow and on Friday,” he said.

Meanwhile, 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 center on Wednesday, the Prime Minister called on people in England to get booster jabs, saying hospitals were under pressure, although Omicron was “obviously milder than the Delta variant”.

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

Health officials are also warning of acute staff shortages in hospitals, sparking a debate over whether the UK should follow the US in reducing the period of Covid isolation from seven to a minimum of five days.

The government has so far opposed the 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 it further”.

Instead, the Prime Minister remains focused on the vaccine booster campaign as the most important means of protecting people.

“I’m sorry to say this, but the vast majority of people who currently end up in intensive care at our hospitals are people who do not get boost,” he said.

“I’ve talked to doctors who say the numbers run up to 90 percent of people on intensive care.” Government insiders said that figure was based on anecdotal evidence from some NHS trusts.

Covid cases in the UK hit a record high of 117,093 on Tuesday, but the number of people in hospital was at 9,546, well below the peak of 34,000 recorded in January.

Other parts of the UK have introduced stricter restrictions than in the UK during the new year. John Swinney, Scotland’s Deputy Prime Minister, urged the Scots not to travel to England for parties on 31 December.

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