Health Minister Robin Swann has announced a number of changes to policy, which will include the closure of publicly accessible Covid testing sites.
Mr Swann said a “more targeted approach” to testing will be introduced on a phased basis from next month, with the focus on supporting and protecting those at highest risk of serious illness.
He added that testing will continue to be available for those eligible for Covid treatments.
Under the new policy, PCR testing will cease for most people with symptoms from April 22, although free lateral flow tests will continue to be available to the public to use should they develop symptoms.
Lateral flow tests will also continue to be available free of charge to support those living in, working in or visiting a higher risk setting such as a care home until the end of June, with a further review then.
The minister said: “The new policy reflects the new realities of the pandemic.
“While the prevalence of the virus remains at a high level, the risk of serious illness has been significantly reduced – thanks in no small measure to our vaccination programme and the use of innovative Covid-19 treatments.
“The risk posed by the virus at the present time does not justify testing and isolating large swathes of the population at the levels that we have seen to date in the past two years.
“Test and trace will continue to have a key role and will be used in a more focused and targeted way to support and protect our most vulnerable.
“This will be kept under very close review and we will have contingency plans in place so that we can scale up should it be required.”
The changes include:
– PCR testing will no longer be recommended or available for most people with symptoms. It will still be available to support the small group for whom it is recommended for clinical reasons. The PCR home ordering service will remain available for the general public to support those for whom PCR is recommended.
– Publicly accessible Covid-19 testing sites will close. Local health and social care trusts will continue to provide PCR testing to support clinical care.
– Those with symptoms will be advised to use lateral flow devices (LFDs) to test instead of booking a PCR.
– Routine asymptomatic testing will continue to be advised for those living, working and visiting health and social care settings, including hospitals and care homes and other high risk settings.
– Asymptomatic LFD testing for the wider population will cease. Access to free LFDs for this purpose will cease.
– Routine asymptomatic workplace testing will cease.
– Routine asymptomatic testing in most educational settings (including mainstream schools, early learning and childcare, universities and further education colleges) will cease at the Easter break.
– Asymptomatic testing in special schools will continue after Easter and will be kept under review. It may continue until the end of June.
– Routine population contact tracing will be phased out between mid-April and the end of June.
Chief Medical Officer Sir Michael McBride said: “We will continue throughout the transition phase to support and protect our most vulnerable.
“After these changes are introduced from April 22, I would urge people to check on NI Direct if testing remains recommended for them – for example if they are eligible for new treatments.
“In the coming weeks, the department will also be working to provide advice and support to those eligible for treatments. It is particularly important that those who are at higher risk of serious illness follow the guidance on getting tested.
“The tools at our disposal to protect people who are at higher risk from Covid-19 have advanced considerably since the early days of the pandemic.
“Alongside the vaccine and booster programme, new Covid-19 treatments continue to be used by patients in Northern Ireland and new treatments are in development.
“As the amount of testing across society reduces, our behaviour and actions have an even more important role in preventing transmission and keeping others safe.
“I urge everyone to continue to follow the public health guidance, including continuing to wear a face covering in enclosed settings like public transport and when visiting hospitals and care homes.”