Live updates: follow the latest news on Covid-19 variant Omicron
The UK government has given a double boost to millions of Britons who had feared a new lockdown by reducing the isolation time for Covid cases in England and ruling out further restrictions before Christmas.
People who have tested positive for the virus will in future be able to leave home on day seven if they have two negative tests.
Unvaccinated people will still have to remain in isolation for the full 10 days.
The rule change was welcomed by a prominent London doctor, who said it may mean that some healthcare workers can return to hospitals sooner than expected as the National Health Service grapples with rising Covid admissions.
Under the new measure, which began on Wednesday, self-isolating people in England are required to take two lateral flow tests on the sixth and seventh day after their first positive test.
If both are negative, they are free to leave their home or place of isolation.
The UK Health Security Agency strongly advises people to limit their contacts with the outside world, avoid vulnerable people and work from home if possible.
Dr Shashank Patil, London regional chair of the Royal College Hospital, welcomed the move, but said further analysis of the guidance would be needed before he and his colleagues could work out how to “effectively implement changes in our departments”.
“Emergency departments are full of vulnerable people. They are crowded and it’s a closed environment,” he told the Today programme on BBC Radio.
However, he said the changes would mean some staff “will be back a bit earlier than what we had planned”, depending on their roles.
The change comes as the UK battles a fierce Covid wave and countries across Europe increase restrictions.
Agency chief executive Dr Jenny Harries said anyone with coronavirus symptoms should still have a PCR test as soon as possible.
“Covid-19 is spreading quickly among the population and the pace at which Omicron is transmitting may pose a risk to running our critical public services during winter,” Dr Harries said.
“This new guidance will help break chains of transmission and minimise the impact on lives and livelihoods.
“It is crucial that people carry out their LFD tests as the new guidance states and continue to follow public health advice.”
An agency study suggested that a seven-day isolation period along with two negative lateral flow test results had nearly the same protective effect as a 10-day isolation period as sensitive at detecting the Omicron variant as they are for Delta.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid said the new advice should help reduce disruption, and urged everyone to have a booster.
“We want to reduce the disruption from Covid-19to people's everyday lives,” Mr Javid said.
“Following advice from our clinical experts, we are reducing the self-isolation period from 10 days to seven if you test negative on an LFD test for two days running.
The agency said that unvaccinated adults who came into contact with someone infected with the coronavirus must still self-isolate until 10 days after their estimated date of exposure.
On Tuesday, the UK reported 90,629 new Covid-19 cases, with total infections in the past seven days 63 per cent higher than the previous week.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed there would be no further lockdown measures before Christmas for England.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak introduced a £1 billion ($1.32bn) support package for businesses to cope with the impact of Omicron.
The package includes one-off grants of up to £6,000 for firms affected and the government covering sick pay for Covid-related absences for small and medium-sized businesses.
There were 129 people in hospital with Omicron on Tuesday, Health Minister Gillian Keegan said in an interview on Wednesday morning.
Asked about the potential issues with IT reporting, Ms Keegan acknowledged there are “some lags in certain bits of the data”, but said the current data shows “129 people (in hospital) as of yesterday and 14 deaths with Omicron”.
She said the government was not yet sure whether Omicron cases had plateaued.
“We haven’t been given that information. We are watching the data very, very carefully,” she said.
Ms Keegan said ministers' decision to rule out further restrictions before Christmas amid rising cases was a “difficult balance but we think we've got the balance right".
“You know, saying to the country we wanted to lock down, when you’ve got those kind of figures wouldn’t look proportionate,” she said.
She refused to rule out further restrictions if England continues on its current trajectory.
Asked if a rumoured circuit-breaker lockdown could be imposed, she said: “We are waiting for data on the severity. We’ll still have to wait to see where we land on that, but we can’t really say.
“What we’ve said is up to Christmas we’re fine looking at the data, looking at the numbers we have at the moment, but, of course, we have to look at where this virus goes.
“I can’t tell you in advance of getting that data, but you should be cheerful because we’re doing a lot more than we could last year. We’re able to see our families.”
Jonathan Ashworth, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said it was not “unreasonable” for people to seek more certainty from the government about possible restrictions that may lay ahead.
“It is a period of uncertainty and the Covid registered infection rates do appear to have plateaued in the last few days and we’ve got to watch that like a hawk, got to see how that impacts on hospitalisation,” he said.