Availability of Covid-19 lateral flow testing has been extended in Northern Ireland until 31 July 2022.
Changes to testing were announced in April 2022 with a further review to take place by the end of June, in line with the Test, Trace, Protect transition plan.
Under current arrangements, lateral flow tests are available to members of the public with COVID-19 symptoms, including importantly those who may be eligible for COVID-19 treatments. Tests are also available to a small number of groups without symptoms including health and social care staff, those visiting others in health and care settings, and those providing close personal care to someone at higher risk should they contract COVID-19 . This availability has been extended for a further month.
The public health response to Covid continues to evolve, with the emphasis on striking the right balance in light of the current risk posed by the COVID-19 virus and trajectory of the pandemic.
In further developments, the self isolation period after a positive COVID-19 test has been reduced to five days, and advice has been updated for those with general symptoms of a respiratory virus including COVID.
Health Minister Robin Swann said: "I have always said I would keep Covid-19 measures under review. It is clear that after a period of reducing case numbers we are now seeing a rise in cases.
"Whilst prevalence continues to be relatively high, thankfully the overall risk of serious illness, hospitalisation and death for those who contract COVID-19 is much lower than during previous waves.
"That said, we continue to see severe pressures in our hospitals and the contribution of COVID-19, even though admission numbers are smaller than in previous waves, adds to these pressures.
"After careful consideration I have decided to extend the availability of lateral flow testing for those with symptoms until the end of July."
From today, adults who test positive for COVID-19 are advised to stay home and avoid contact with other people for five days after the day of test or from the day symptoms started. As children tend to be less infectious than adults, this period is reduced to three days for children under 18 years of age.
Whilst the self-isolation period has been reduced, people are advised to avoid contact with individuals who are at higher risk from COVID-19 for the full 10 days. They should also avoid visiting others in care homes, hospitals and other health and social care settings. Testing to end isolation is no longer advised.
The Minister said: "This updated advice seeks to strike the right balance at this stage of the pandemic between reducing transmission, protecting the vulnerable and mitigating the disruption caused by longer periods of isolation."
The symptoms of COVID-19 have changed significantly since the start of the pandemic and the symptoms are now very often similar to other respiratory viruses. The same public health advice is therefore appropriate in relation to all respiratory illness symptoms.
If you have a high temperature or do not feel well enough to go to work or carry out your normal activities, stay home and minimise your contact with others until you feel well. You should particularly avoid contact with those considered vulnerable and you should not visit others in health and social care settings if you are feeling unwell or continue to have symptoms.
This is the advice for all people with symptoms of respiratory infections, not just Covid-19. Those who test positive for COVID-19 should stay at home in line with the updated isolation guidance announced today.
The Minister said: "As we move forward together, and continue learning to live life COVID aware, I would urge people to use personal judgment, to act responsibly and to take sensible actions to help stop the spread of COVID-19 and other respiratory infections. This in turn will help to protect those who are most vulnerable."
Further detail of the list of symptoms of respiratory viruses including COVID-19 and what to do should you develop symptoms can be found on NI Direct.
Contact tracing has been one of the key interventions used over the last two years to help suppress transmission and reduce the impact of COVID-19 on our society.
In line with the Test, Trace, Protect transition plan, contact tracing for the general population has been phased out over the past couple of months and the service has now been formally stood down from 30 June 2022.
The Minister concluded: "I want to thank the staff in the Public Health Agency and the wider health service who have worked in the Contact Tracing Service for their exceptional professionalism and dedication over the past two challenging years. I would also like to thank everyone who engaged with the Service, provided details of their contacts and complied with the guidance."
The Public Health Agency retain the ability to deliver a proportionate testing and contact tracing response in the future should there be a significant outbreak, wave or emergence of a new variant.
The updates on testing, self-isolation, symptoms and contact tracing are detailed in a Written Ministerial Statement to the Assembly issued today.