Doctors' leaders warn that the UK remains in a 'very precarious situation', with cases rising after the relaxation of self-isolation guidelines from 16 August.
Updated rules mean people who have received two doses of COVID-19 vaccine can avoid self-isolation even if they have come into close contact with an infected person. NHS staff have been instructed to follow 'stay at home' advice and take a PCR test if they develop symptoms, but the government expects 'the majority of fully vaccinated health and social care staff will be able to continue in their usual role' even if they are close contacts.
However, the BMA has called on the government to expand the list of official COVID-19 symptoms to ensure it is as ‘up to date as possible and cases are not missed’.
The BMA's demand comes as the UK reported 36,572 new cases on 19 August - up 10% compared with a week earlier, and the highest daily figure for nearly a month.
At present the government lists three official symptoms for coronavirus that warrant a PCR test: loss of taste or smell, continuous cough, or fever. By contrast the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention lists 11 symptoms, and the World Health Organisation 13.
In July, a British Medical Journal article warned that the narrow list of COVID-19 symptoms in the UK was ‘limiting detection’ and ‘likely to impede control of transmission’. It added that, following the successful vaccination campaign, it was less likely that people would experience severe disease or official symptoms.
GPs warned last month that they were coming under increasing pressure as growing numbers of fully vaccinated people contract COVID-19 were contacting practices with ‘runny noses, sore throats, headaches, and myalgia’.
BMA public health medicine committee co-chair, Dr Penelope Toff, stressed that a wider symptom list was even more important following the recent relaxation of pandemic rules.
She said: ‘We remain in a very precarious situation with COVID-19. Being fully vaccinated significantly reduces the chance of being infected, but it does not totally eliminate it so we strongly urge the public to remain cautious and take sensible precautions, such as taking a PCR test if in close contact with a positive case.
‘It’s also important to remember that the updated guidance applies only to people who have the infection but are not showing symptoms. Anyone who develops symptoms should still self-isolate and end isolation only following a negative PCR test.
'That being said, the BMA would like to see the government explore widening the official COVID-19 symptoms list to ensure that it is as up to date as possible and cases are not missed.’
A DHSC spokesperson said: ‘Since the start of the pandemic we have acknowledged COVID-19 has a much longer list of symptoms than the ones used in the case definition and experts keep the list of symptoms under review.
‘With around one in three people not showing symptoms of COVID-19, we have made regular, rapid testing available twice a week for free for everyone in England. Over 131m lateral flow device tests have been carried out so far with over 350,000 cases identified that would not have been detected otherwise.’
In February, King’s College London researchers found that extending the list of official COVID-19 symptoms could help detect around a third more cases - and concluded that testing people with cough, fever, anosmia, fatigue, headache, sore throat or diarrhoea in the first three days of illness would have detected 96% of symptomatic cases.