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UK authorities ease COVID testing requirements amid surge



Health authorities across the UK simplified COVID-19 testing requirements on Wednesday, a move designed to cut isolation times for many people and that may ease the staffing shortages that are hitting public services from hospitals to garbage collection amid an omicron-fueled surge in infections.

In another effort to bolster the economy, Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the House of Commons that pre-departure tests for people traveling to England will no longer be required because the omicron variant is so prevalent that travel restrictions meant to contain its spread are now meaningless. The tests had discouraged people from traveling overseas for fear they would get stuck abroad.

The moves came as the Cabinet backed Johnson's decision not to impose any further restrictions despite record COVID-19 infection levels. With indications that omicron is less severe than earlier variants and widespread vaccination curtailing serious illnesses, the government is sticking with light-touch controls imposed in mid-December.

“All these measures are balanced and proportionate ways of ensuring we can live with COVID without letting our guard down," Johnson told lawmakers.

The UK Health Security Agency said that from Jan. 11 people in England who test positive using a rapid lateral flow test will no longer need to confirm the result with a PCR test if they are asymptomatic.

The temporary move, which also was used early last year, will cut the time people who record a positive lateral flow test but don't have COVID-19 symptoms need to self-isolate. They will no longer need to wait for the result of a PCR test and then begin another seven days of isolation.

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“While cases of COVID continue to rise, this tried-and-tested approach means that LFDs (lateral flow devices) can be used confidently to indicate COVID-19 infection without the need for PCR confirmation," said Jenny Harries, the agency's chief executive.

Health authorities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland quickly followed suit, with Northern Ireland making the change immediately. Scotland and Wales plan to introduce it starting Thursday.

Epidemiologist John Edmunds, a professor at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said the move made sense.

“When the prevalence is high, and it is incredibly high at the moment, almost everyone who tests positive with a lateral flow test will be a true positive," Edmunds said. “There is really no need to confirm this with a PCR, a step that not only wastes time but costs a lot of money and uses up laboratory resources that could be better used elsewhere."

But he cautioned that the change will mean authorities have less data about the spread of different variants as PCR swabs are used for genotyping and sequencing to identify different mutations. The change also will mean that daily updates on confirmed cases — which come from PCR tests — "may need more careful interpretation,” he said.

Confirmed new infections over the last seven days jumped 40% from a week earlier, according to the latest government statistics.

The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Keir Starmer, tested positive for the coronavirus and missed the chance to grill Johnson about the government’s COVID-19 policies on Wednesday.

A string of National Health Service local organizations have declared "critical incidents" in recent days amid staff shortages. Hospitals in the Greater Manchester region said they would pause some non-urgent surgeries amid the rising impact of COVID-19 and worker absences.

Gillian Keegan, a junior minister at the UK Ministry of Health, acknowledged the strain in an interview with the BBC.

“Right now, they are under extreme pressure with the omicron variant, with the number of positive cases and the increase in hospitalizations, and at this point in (winter) time when they always have extreme pressure," Keegan said.

There have also been cuts to train services and garbage is piling up on some city streets because of sanitation staff shortages.

NHS Confederation Chief Executive Matthew Taylor told the BBC he would support the new testing regime if scientists deem it safe.

“Hospitals who have declared critical incidents, for example, are essentially reaching out to staff who are on leave, on rest days or even recently retired and asking them to come back to wards, so the situation is desperate," Taylor said. "Any way of getting staff back into hospital is a good thing."

An ambulance service in northeast England began advising patients with non-life-threatening conditions over the New Year's weekend to ask a relative to drive them to a hospital as waiting times for ambulances rose because of staff shortages and extra demand.

“It is still taking us too long to get an ambulance to patients. Unfortunately, due to this, patients remain at risk, which is unacceptable," North East Ambulance Service medical director Mathew Beattie said Wednesday.

He stressed, however, that "we would never ask anyone to drive themselves to hospital with a life-threatening illness.”

Opposition politicians and some public health experts have pressed the government to tighten restrictions on business and personal interactions as omicron sweeps across the country. Johnson has resisted their calls after almost 100 of his party’s lawmakers opposed mask requirements and other infection-control measures imposed last month.

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Saudi Arabia sees slight increase with 4,838 new COVID-19 cases



Saudi Arabia saw a slight increase in the number of daily new COVID-19 cases after 4,838 new infections were recorded over the past 24 hours, the Ministry of Health announced on Monday.

Read the latest updates in our dedicated coronavirus section.

Two COVID-19-related deaths were also reported, raising the death toll to 8,922 as of January 24.

Meanwhile, 6,296 people who had previously tested positive for the virus recovered, raising the recovery total to 606,130. A total of 657,192 infections have been reported in the Kingdom since the pandemic first started.

Despite Monday's cases being higher than the 4,535 reported on Sunday, Saudi Arabia has seen a decrease in daily infections after daily COVID-19 infections reached nearly 6,000 earlier this month.

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Saudi Arabia records 4,535 COVID-19 cases, two deaths in 24 hours



Saudi Arabia has recorded 4,535 new COVID-19 cases and two virus-related deaths in the last 24 hours, according to the Ministry of Health.

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A total of 652,354 cases of coronavirus and 8,920 related deaths have been recorded in the Kingdom since the start of the pandemic.

There were also 5,072 recoveries in the last 24 hours, bringing the total number to 599,834.

Saudi Arabia has administered 55,226,399 vaccine doses to its population of around 34 million.

Daily case numbers peaked on January 19, when 5,928 were recorded.

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‘Wuhan, I Am Here’: Film follows volunteers in Chinese sealed city due to COVID-19



The homeless, the sick, the elderly: For people who fell through the cracks of the official system, the then-unprecedented decision to isolate the central Chinese city of Wuhan and its 13 million people was a matter of life or death at the peak of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Film director Lan Bo hopes to sound the alarm with a documentary, “Wuhan, I Am Here,” about volunteers who helped neighbors get food and medical care following the lockdown in early 2020 of the city where the coronavirus pandemic began.

For more coronavirus news, visit our dedicated page.

The documentary comes as China has renewed similar lockdowns in three other cities since mid-December to contain COVID-19 outbreaks. The number of people confined to their homes totaled some 20 million people in early January.

The government’s decision to commandeer Wuhan’s hospitals to treat COVID-19 patients meant many people with other problems were turned away.

The film begins with a woman in tears outside a hospital that wouldn’t admit her husband for treatment of lung cancer. Volunteers secured a bed for him by talking with a Beijing hospital and working medical connections.

Other families struggled to get treatment for children with severe conditions.

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“At that time, medical resources focused on COVID-19 patients, so it wasn’t their turn” to be treated, said Lan.

“Those who needed dialysis, those who had cancer and AIDS patients who needed medicine,” said Lan. “In addition, patients in critical condition and needed to be hospitalized — what were they going to do? We were all thinking about these questions.”

The government sent truckloads of food daily to apartment compounds. But elderly people who couldn’t leave their homes and the homeless relied on volunteers to get food for them.

Lan chronicles the hurdles volunteers encountered. They needed permits to drive in different areas of Wuhan. They were stopped by local officials who said they lacked permission to distribute food and other supplies.

The lockdown of Wuhan, which spread to other Chinese cities, was later imitated by some Asian and Western governments as the virus spread.

China’s unusually stringent “zero tolerance” strategy that aimed to find and isolate every infected person helped to keep the country’s case numbers relatively low.

The National Health Commission has reported a total of 4,636 fatalities — and none since early 2021 — out of 105,484 confirmed cases.

In the latest lockdown, most access to Xi’an in the west and its 13 million people was suspended in mid-December.

The city government has been criticized for food shortages and the severity of anti-disease measures imposed under pressure from Beijing to bring down case numbers.

A pregnant woman suffered a miscarriage after being turned away from a hospital, reportedly for lacking current COVID-19 test results.

Xi’an failed to learn from Wuhan about the importance of volunteers, Lan said.

Especially the pandemic in Xi’an, what I saw is the government’s neglect of civilian forces, which resulted in the lack of adequate treatment at the grassroots level,” Lan said.

“Why was Wuhan able to get through this?” Lan said. “I think in addition to our country and the government’s huge input into resources, it was also because of the contributions of the tens of thousands of volunteers that worked in obscurity.”

Lan has applied for government approval to release the “Wuhan, I Am Here” in China. It was screened at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival in Japan last year.

Under a lockdown, “it is this kind of daily life that sometimes determines the life and death of a person and determines the destiny of the person,” Lan said.

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