The British government is under pressure to prioritise healthcare workers for lateral flow tests after health secretary Sajid Javid warned that the tests may have to be rationed over the next two weeks.
Ministers have urged people to take the antigen tests before social gatherings but testing kits have been unavailable online and in short supply at pharmacies.
Mr Javid has admitted that record numbers of coronavirus infections have put the testing system under pressure.
“In light of the huge demand for [tests] seen over the last three weeks, we expect to need to constrain the system at certain points over the next two weeks to manage supply over the course of each day, with new tranches of supply released regularly throughout each day,” he wrote in a letter to MPs.
Three railway companies have said they will limit services around London because of staff shortages due to coronavirus infections, which are also affecting the NHS.
Labour's shadow health secretary Wes Streeting called on Mr Javid to prioritise healthcare workers for PCR and lateral flow tests. "We are already seeing worrying numbers of NHS staff having to isolate, with staff shortages putting enormous pressure on our health service as a result," he said.
“I urge you to put the key workers we have relied upon for the past two years to the front of the queue and do everything you can to prevent a staffing shortage crisis in our NHS. The government must get a grip on this crisis, bring these shortages to an end, and ensure everyone can access tests quickly and regularly.”
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have introduced new restrictions in response to the surge in infections but Boris Johnson has not tightened the rules in England. Immunologist Peter Openshaw, a member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group, said the prospect of untested people mingling at New Year's Eve parties was very worrying.
The NHS is also setting up so-called Nightingale care hubs to prepare for a potential surge in Covid-19 admissions due to the Omicron variant.
The temporary structures will be capable of providing diagnostics and emergency care to about 100 patients each and will be erected in the grounds of eight hospitals, the NHS said in a statement on Thursday.
“We know the situations in which transmission happens, and fortunately I don’t think we are facing the sort of lockdown that was necessary in order to cope in the very earliest part of this year. But we do know that crowding together in poorly ventilated spaces, particularly if you are shouting over loud music, is absolutely perfect in terms of transmitting this very, very highly transmissible virus,” he told the BBC.
The French government on Thursday night suspended a ban on British people from transiting through France on their way to other EU countries. British travellers returning to the continent after Christmas had been turned away from the Eurotunnel because Britain is a "third country" and subject to tougher French coronavirus rules than EU member states.
“It seems logical to consider them like all other third-country citizens, and to not allow their transit toward another EU country,” a French interior ministry official told the AFP news agency on Thursday.
Paris said later that it would show “tolerance” towards British citizens living in the EU by allowing them to transit through France “during the year-end holidays”.
The developments come as the latest ZOE Covid study estimated that three-quarters of people with new cold-like symptoms in the UK are likely to have Covid-19, but exponential case growth seems to have stopped. Additional reporting: Bloomberg/PA