Nurses and other health workers will no longer be tested for Covid-19 unless they have symptoms, the government has announced.
From 31 August, routine asymptomatic testing in England will be paused across health and care settings.
However, health leaders have warned that this will make health and care staff “even more worried” about their safety and have warned that this policy change could undermine how serious coronavirus still is.
“It is vital that there is continued vigilance to ensure patients and nursing staff are not put at risk”
Settings that will remove asymptomatic testing include the NHS, adult social care and hospice services, parts of the prison estate and detention and some domestic abuse refuges and homelessness settings.
This comes as the government said the number of coronavirus cases, deaths and hospitalisations have fallen in England.
Health and social care secretary Steve Barclay said: “Thanks to the success of our world-leading vaccination roll-out, we are able to continue living with Covid and, from 31 August, we will pause routine asymptomatic testing in most high-risk settings.
“This reflects the fact case rates have fallen and the risk of transmission has reduced, though we will continue to closely monitor the situation and work with sectors to resume testing should it be needed.”
However testing will remain in place for those with symptoms, as well as for immunocompromised patients in hospitals and people being admitted into care homes and hospices.
Testing will also be available for outbreaks in certain high-risk settings such as care homes.
The Royal College of Nursing director for England, Patricia Marquis, said: “Nursing staff are only too aware of the terrible toll the failure to test can have on some of their most vulnerable patients.
“Cases of Covid-19 may well be falling but this virus has still not gone away, and it is vital that there is continued vigilance to ensure patients and nursing staff are not put at risk.”
Ms Marquis called for nursing staff to continue to have access to free testing and high-quality personal protective equipment.
“We have all come a long way and must not risk any backwards step when health services are already under enormous pressure,” she added.
Unison head of heath, Sara Gorton, echoed these concerns and said decisions about regular testing “should be based on clinical risk and not on factors such as cost”.
She said: “NHS staff were already alarmed that last month’s withdrawal of Covid pay and leave measures could be a backward step.
“Dispensing with testing requirements will make them even more worried about safety and the resilience of services.”
Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, warned that the timing of this new policy could “downplay” how serious Covid-19 is and could “undermine messages” around the need to get vaccinated.
He said: “This comes as the NHS is planning for what is widely expected to be the busiest winter on record with a triple threat of Covid, flu and norovirus and against a backdrop of 105,000 vacancies, crumbling estate, rising treatment backlogs and an under-supported social care sector.”
On August 15, the UK approved a new dual-strain vaccine, made by Moderna, which targets both the original Covid-19 virus strain and the newer Omicron variant.
The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation agreed that this new vaccine will be used in the autumn booster programme, being rolled out from 12 September for those eligible, including nurses and other frontline health and social care workers.