UK expands COVID-19 testing to ease shortage of key workers

People walk along Oxford Street, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in London, Britain, July 26, 2021. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

LONDON (Reuters) -Britain’s government expanded a programme of daily COVID-19 tests on Monday to reduce a wave of staff absence created by a high number of new cases and strict rules on self-isolation for people who might have been infected by them.

Hundreds of thousands of British workers, who have been in close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19, have been required under public health guidelines to self-isolate for 10 days, creating staff shortages in critical areas.

This rule is due to end for fully vaccinated workers on Aug. 16, and before then workers may be exempted if their employer is selected to host government-run daily COVID-19 tests. Currently, self-isolation is normally required even if someone subsequently tests negative for COVID-19.

Last week this programme was announced for 800 workplaces in the food industry, transport sector and some police, firefighters and border guards.

On Monday Britain’s health ministry said it would set up daily testing at a further 1,200 workplaces including military bases, prisons and pharmaceuticals factories, as well as for refuse workers, essential utilities and tax collectors.

“Whether it’s prison guards reporting for duty, waste collectors keeping our streets clean or workers in our energy sector keeping the lights on, critical workers have been there for us at every stage of this global pandemic,” health minister Sajid Javid said.

The new daily testing programme will be unavailable to the vast majority of private-sector employers, however. Growth in the first half of July slowed sharply due to high absence and supermarkets have warned of difficulties fully restocking shelves.

Britain has suffered Europe’s second-highest death toll from COVID-19, after Russia, and in recent weeks cases have increased because of the more infectious Delta variant, though deaths have been much lower this time around in the pandemic following widespread vaccination.

The latest data suggest Britain may have passed the peak of infections in this wave – despite a relaxation in COVID-19 rules in England on July 19 – but more than a quarter of a million people still tested positive in the past week.

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