The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) confirmed on Wednesday that asymptomatic people in England who test positive for Covid with a lateral flow test will no longer be required to take a follow-up PCR test to confirm the result.
PCR tests, which detect infection earlier than rapid tests, will still be required for some cases in order to help scientists track new variants.
However, it is understood that ministers plan to scale back their usage while infection levels soar due to Omicron.
Health minister Gillian Keegan said on Wednesday morning that it was time to consider “what value the PCR adds” after concerns were raised over lengthy self-isolation periods for people awaiting their test results.
However, leading figures in the pharmacy industry have warned that the move is likely to see the supply of lateral flow tests shrink further.
Test kits have repeatedly been unavailable online in recent weeks, with many pharmacies complaining of being unable to secure them.
Dr Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMP), said several pharmacies across the country have reported not receiving any fresh test kits since last Tuesday.
She told i: “Unfortunately the problem is that supply is very patchy and it doesn’t really hit the high numbers. A box contains seven tests. For a family of five – bam, it’s gone.”
Asked whether the decision to scrap confirmatory PCR tests would lead to a surge in demand for lateral flow tests, Dr Hannbeck said: “Yes, of course… It’s logical to anticipate that demand will go up when these kinds of plans are put in place.
“We are still going on the guidelines implemented in December that put a lot of emphasis on lateral flow tests in order for people to come out of self-isolation and basically get their life back. I think as long as that is in place the demand for lateral flow tests will be very high.”
Dr Hannbeck also cast doubt on the Health Secretary’ Sajid Javids promise to increase lateral flow test deliveries to 300m in January, up from the 100m planned before the Omicron variant was discovered.
“Last week Sajid Javid said he wants to boost the supply in January and February, but as it stands today that is not translating into action,” she said.
“There are two issues here. Firstly, supply has not been coming into the UK on time. The other issue, which we did raise again back in early December, is that we are relying on one wholesale supplier.”
Dr Hannbeck’s comments come after it emerged earlier this week that Alliance Healthcare, the sole distributor of lateral flow tests to pharmacies across England, closed for four days over the Christmas period shortly after it received 2.5 million tests.
The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), which represents all 11,200 pharmacies across England, said that 2.5m tests had been delivered to Alliance Healthcare on 24 December but were not available for delivery until 29 December after a “planned Christmas break”.
An Alliance Healthcare spokesperson confirmed the closure between 24 December and 28 December, adding that distribution resumed on 29 December “when the majority of community pharmacies reopened.
But Dr Hannbeck warned that the nation’s overreliance on one lateral flow test supplier would inevitably lead to stock issues.
“I did ask [the UKHSA] why just one wholesaler? Why not bring in several wholesalers that could have several warehouses? I didn’t get any answers to that specific question, all I got was that the supply chain is functioning well. Where’s the stock then?” she said.
The AIMP chief noted that the pharmacy sector continues to bear the brunt of supply chain issues, as she slammed reports of aggressive behaviour towards staff whose stores had run out of test kits as “shocking”.
Her comments were echoed by Alastair Buxton, director of NHS Services at the PSNC, who told i on Wednesday that “the ongoing reliance on lateral flow tests continue to put pressure on supplies through community pharmacies”.
“Pharmacies are still telling us that lateral flow test supplies coming through to them can be unreliable at an individual pharmacy level, and that the supplies they are receiving are very quickly used up,” he said.
“Some pharmacies are also still reporting that frustrated members of the public are being verbally abusive to them. Pharmacies are not able to increase their orders of lateral flow tests.
“The ongoing situation is putting significant pressure on pharmacy teams who are working flat out to meet patient demands for Covid-19 tests alongside medicines and healthcare advice and services.”
i has contacted the UKHSA for comment.