UKHSA said on 5 January that the suspension of PCR confirmatory tests was a 'temporary measure while COVID-19 rates remain high across the UK' - in a move that came amid reports of NHS staff struggling to access tests.
More than 170,000 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed across the UK per day on average over the past week - and GP leaders have warned that the general practice workforce has been hit hard by soaring staff absences.
Advice for health service staff on returning from self isolation after a positive COVID-19 test has also been updated in recent days. Staff can now end self isolation and return to work seven days after an initial positive test, providing they return negative LFD results on days six and seven - in line with advice for the public.
However, updated advice from the UKHSA warns that staff who return negative tests and return to work from day seven of their self-isolation must continue to take daily LFD tests on days 8, 9 and 10. Should any of these tests come back positive, the member of staff would need to return to isolation.
If a member of NHS staff tests positive on day 10 of their self isolation period, they should continue daily LFD testing and can return to work after a single negative test.
Staff who still test positive on day 14 can stop testing and return to work from day 15, UKHSA advice says. However, it advises that for staff who test positive between days 10 and 14 who do not have a high temperature, managers can carry out a risk assessment 'with a view to them returning to work depending on the work environment'.
Despite the rule change from 11 January, staff identified as a close contact of a confirmed COVID-19 case are still expected to arrange a PCR test immediately and take daily LFD tests for 10 days following their last contact with the case.
Meanwhile, updated UKHSA advice confirms that staff who test positive via either an LFD or PCR test while asymptomatic and subsequently develop one or more of the main COVID-19 symptoms 'do not need to start a new self-isolation period'.
The NHS England letter said: 'From 11 January, those who receive positive lateral flow device (LFD) results for COVID-19 will be required to self-isolate immediately and will not be required to take a confirmatory PCR test. This is because the vast majority of people with positive LFD results will have COVID-19 at current high prevalence rates.
'Lateral flow tests are taken by people who do not have COVID-19 symptoms. Anyone who develops one of the three main COVID-19 symptoms should stay at home and self-isolate even if a lateral flow test is negative and take a PCR test as soon as they are able to. They must self isolate if they get a positive test result – these rules have not changed.'