Almost 23,000 in North test positive for Covid-19 over Christmas period

Northern Ireland changes policy on PCR testing for Covid-19 due to record demand

Almost 23,000 people in Northern Ireland tested positive for Covid-19 over the Christmas period.

Figures released by the North's Department of Health on Wednesday showed 22,972 new cases of the virus - or approximately 4,500 cases per day - were confirmed during the five day period between from midnight on December 23rd to midnight on December 28th.

There were 14 deaths among people with Covid-19.

The number of new positive cases represents a significant increase from the previous daily case record of just under 3,300 cases per day, which was reported on Christmas Eve.

The average number of cases over the last seven days now stands at 1,631 per 100,000 people in Northern Ireland, with the highest figure - 2,266 people per 100,000 - in the Derry City and Strabane District Council area.

The rise has been driven by the highly transmissible Omicron variant, which is now the dominant strain in the North.

On Wednesday the policy on PCR testing for Covid-19 was changed in the North to cope with record demand which left people unable to book tests.

The Public Health Agency (PHA) said this was to keep testing capacity available for people with symptoms who were most likely to test positive.

According to the official booking website tests were unavailable in any of the North’s six counties on Wednesday afternoon, with home tests also unavailable.

The Public Health Agency (PHA) in Northern Ireland said on Wednesday afternoon that “record numbers” of people had been tested in the last week, with over 21,000 tests carried out on December 27th and a similar number on December 28th.

There have also been reports of some shortages of supply of antigen test kits, widely known as lateral flow tests in the North. Gerard Greene from Community Pharmacy NI told the BBC demand was "extremely high" and had "quadrupled" in some areas.

“Not all pharmacies will get it [A TEST]today, so it’ll be a case of just checking with the pharmacy regularly if they have a supply,” he said.

As of midday on Wednesday, fully-vaccinated close contacts of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the North are no longer required to take a PCR test, but are instead advised to take an antigen test as soon as possible and daily until the 10th day after the last contact with the positive case.

If the lateral flow test turns positive at any time, they should book a PCR test and self-isolate until they receive the result.

Unvaccinated people must still self-isolate for 10 days.

It is no longer necessary for children under five to take a PCR test, even if they have Covid-19 symptoms, unless advised to do so by their doctor.

In a statement on Wednesday the PHA said people should only book PCR tests when necessary, and the new testing protocols had been put in place “to help protect the testing system in Northern Ireland and ensure availability of testing for those who need it”.

The Deputy Director of Public Health at the PHA, Dr Bríd Farrell, said that “as Omicron continues to spread in Northern Ireland, we are seeing the expected rapid increase in the number of people going for PCR testing.

“While this shows that people are taking the issue seriously, and we thank them for that, it is also important that we protect the testing system so that those who need to be tested by PCR can get it.”

She said the changes had been made “to allow valuable PCR tests to be directed towards those who have symptoms and who are most likely to test positive.”