People in England and Scotland are being urged to take regular lateral flow tests before visiting friends, attending busy venues or even going Christmas shopping as governments attempt to prevent a surge in infection rates over the festive period.
Anticipating an increase in social mixing over the coming month, UK government guidance on when to take a Covid test changed on Tuesday, with people in England now being encouraged to take a rapid test before mixing with others in “crowded indoor spaces”. Previously the public was advised to use lateral flow tests twice-weekly.
Making her regular Covid statement on Tuesday, Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, called on the public to make an “extra effort” to take a test whenever they planned to socialise with others, whether going for drinks or dinner, visiting friends at home or going shopping somewhere crowded.
She told MSPs: “The most precious gift we can give anyone this Christmas is to be fully vaccinated or tested before we meet, hug or spend time with them.”
Sturgeon also announced that, as of 6 December, Scots would be able to show proof of a recent negative lateral flow test result as part of the country’s Covid passport system. People in Scotland have been required to show proof of vaccination to enter nightclubs and large events like music festivals and football matches since October.
Official guidance for Covid in England has been updated to recommend people take a lateral flow test “if it is expected that there will be a period of high risk that day”, for example spending time “in crowded and enclosed spaces”, or visiting those at greater risk of serious illness if they get Covid. The change from previous advice, which simply recommended regular lateral flow tests, does not specifically mention Christmas, but appears to be based on the fact many people will be in shops, or planning trips to see relatives and friends.
In what Sturgeon described as a “very finely balanced decision”, the Scottish cabinet decided not to extend the devolved nation’s passport scheme to theatres, cinemas and hospitality venues, amid concerns about the impact on civil liberties and business, and claims that Holyrood has failed to provide convincing evidence of the scheme’s efficacy in driving up vaccination rates.
While hospitality groups welcomed the decision not to extend the scheme further, the Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, accused Sturgeon of “wasting months ignoring experts and the evidence” by concentrating on proof of vaccine rather than testing.
The Scottish Liberal Democrat leader, Alex Cole-Hamilton, who has cited the recent Cop26 conference in Glasgow as a successful example of using testing alone, called on the government to abolish vaccine-based passports.
“Lateral flow tests are superior to vaccine passports because they actually show who is sick and who is well. The government has finally accepted that today, but only after causing panic among businesses.”
Sturgeon said that renewed lockdown measures across Europe were a “stark reminder that the pandemic is not yet behind us” and that, while the situation in Scotland “is more positive than we might have expected” it was “still precarious”.
The Scottish government will intensify its public information campaign as the country approaches the festive season, emphasising that it remains “essential” to get fully vaccinated, take regular tests and wear face coverings in indoor settings.
On Friday, the Scottish government published an evidence paper arguing that, with cases surging across Europe, ministers faced a choice between “closing venues, limiting group sizes and advising people not to meet each other” or “enabling people to meet up in a lower-risk way by using certification to reduce the risk that an infectious person will be present in a higher-risk setting”.
But on Tuesday the cabinet chose to do neither, after the latest data indicated case numbers had fallen slightly.
As rising infection rates in Northern Ireland put pressure on already stretched health services, Stormont ministers strengthened their home working advice on Tuesday, and encouraged people to limit their social contacts and wear face coverings in indoor settings.
The Welsh government has said that any decision to add hospitality venues to its Covid pass scheme, which requires proof of vaccination or a negative test in the past 48 hours, over Christmas will be made next month.