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Covid test shortages will affect staffing in schools and businesses, leaders warn | Coronavirus



Schools and businesses will suffer next if widespread shortages of Covid tests continue, after staffing difficulties in hospitals and care homes.

With the government’s website indicating no availability for PCR tests at walk-in services or by home delivery, and pharmacies continuing to struggle to meet demand for lateral flow test (LFT) kits, sector leaders say the shortages will have knock-on effects once the UK emerges from the holiday period.

Transport: train operators struggling to stay on track

Train services have been disrupted by staff shortages caused by Covid. Great Western Railway said: “With rising numbers of staff unavailable to work because of positive Covid tests and having to self-isolate, we have taken steps to maintain service levels across the network. Unfortunately, this includes planned cancellations designed to minimise the impact on as many customers as possible.”

West Midlands Railway said the Omicron variant was having “a significant impact” on its workforce. ScotRail said its services would be disrupted until 28 January because of a shortage of train crew, and services could be cancelled or changed at short notice.

A shortage of staff has led Southern to halt services to and from London Victoria for two weeks. The routes had already been suspended this week due to engineering works, and the staffing problems mean the suspension will continue until 10 January at the earliest.

Schools: test shortages have potential to delay start of term

The Department for Education announced in November that secondary schools in England would need to test all pupils twice on site before they can return to the classroom. Schools have been given flexibility over when to carry out the tests, with many expected to spread out returns over the latter half of next week.

Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Schools and colleges are able to order lateral flow device test kits through an online ordering system … These orders are due to be delivered in the week commencing 3 January, and we have not been notified by the government of any issues affecting supply.”

Several headteachers who spoke to the Guardian said they had stockpiled enough kits to test pupils, but feared that shortages of tests for teachers and other essential school staff such as caterers were likely to be a bigger problem.

Care homes: slow results making staffing issues worse

Some care homes have stopped allowing in visitors because of staff shortages, which have been affected by lengthening delays in getting results from walk-in tests. Care home staff are required to have two lateral flow tests and a PCR test each week.

Nadra Ahmed, the chair of the National Care Association, said care homes were reporting delays of four days in getting PCR results, meaning the results were out of date before they arrived. “Agency nurses are not turning up, managers are having to work day shifts and night shifts just to keep the service covered – it has been horrendous. We continue to support families visiting where it is safe but some providers have had to close to visitors because they don’t have the staff to support safe visiting,” Ahmed said.

Vaccinated residents who leave a home temporarily have to be tested for the following 10 days after they return, meaning availability of tests is crucial.

NHS: call for tests to be reserved for staff

NHS staff are required to take twice weekly tests but are not given access to lateral flow tests from their institutions and must seek their own, after a change in guidance over the summer. The surge in demand has hit NHS staff’s access to LFTs, leading to fears of staff shortages.

Unison, one of the main unions representing health workers, said NHS leaders needed to “up the pressure” on the government to reserve tests for NHS staff if stocks were low. Helga Pile, Unison’s deputy head of health, said: “NHS workers are under enough pressure as it is without the additional worry of obtaining tests.”

The call for priority testing for NHS staff has been supported by the Royal College of Nursing, NHS Providers and the British Medical Association, after reports that NHS trusts are reporting high numbers of absences related to Covid.

Hospitality: tests needed for celebrations to go ahead

A lack of tests in England could mean the efforts of restaurants, clubs and pubs to host New Year’s Eve celebrations are in vain, industry representatives said.

With Boris Johnson and ministers telling the public that they needed a test before safely partying on 31 December, the hospitality sector said bookings remained at about half of that seen in a normal year. A lack of test kits could lead to that figure falling further.

Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UK Hospitality, said: “We need to make sure people have access to tests so they can continue to come to work as well as partying.”

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Solar storms may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in a given year



In an approximate 11-year cycle, the sun blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field, which may disrupt our body clock and ultimately affect our heart


17 June 2022

A solar storm

Jurik Peter/Shutterstock

Solar storms that disrupt Earth’s magnetic field may cause up to 5500 heart-related deaths in the US in a given year.

The sun goes through cycles of high and low activity that repeat approximately every 11 years. During periods of high activity, it blasts out charged particles and magnetised plasma that can distort Earth’s magnetic field.

These so-called solar storms can cause glitches in our power grids and bring down Earth-orbiting satellites. A handful of studies have also hinted that they increase the risk of …

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UK Covid infection rate rising, with more than a million cases in England | Coronavirus



Coronavirus infections are rising in the UK, figures have revealed, with experts noting the increase is probably down to the more transmissible BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants.

The figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS), based on swabs collected from randomly selected households, reveal that in the week ending 11 June an estimated one in 50 people in the community in England are thought to have had Covid – around 1.13 million people.

The figure is even higher, at one in 45, in both Wales and Northern Ireland, while it was highest in Scotland where, in the week ending 10 June, one in 30 people are thought to have been infected.

While the figures remain below the peak levels of infection seen earlier this year, when around one in 13 people in England had Covid, the findings are a rise on the previous week where one in 70 people in England were thought to be infected. Furthermore, the data reveals increases in all regions of England, except the north-east, and across all age groups.

Experts say that a key factor in the increase is probably the rise of the Covid variants of concern BA.4 and BA.5.

“Infections have increased across all four UK nations, driven by rising numbers of people infected with the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron variants,” said Kara Steel, senior statistician for the Covid-19 Infection Survey.

While Steel said it remained too early to say if this was the start of another wave, others have warned it may already have begun, with increased mixing and travelling among other factors fuelling a rise in cases.

Among concerns scientists have raised are that BA.4, BA.5 and another variant on the rise, BA.2.12.1, replicate more efficiently in human lung cells than BA.2.

Prof Azra Ghani, an epidemiologist at Imperial College London, said the latest figures were not surprising, and might rise further.

“This increase in infection prevalence is likely due to the growth of the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, which as we have seen elsewhere in Europe, appear to be able to escape immunity generated from previous Omicron subvariants,” she said.

“It is therefore possible that we will continue to see some growth in infection prevalence in the coming weeks and consequently an increase in hospitalisations, although these subvariants do not currently appear to result in any significantly changed severity profile. This does however serve as a reminder that the Covid-19 pandemic is not over.”

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NHS to offer women in England drug that cuts recurrence of breast cancer | Breast cancer



Thousands of women in England with breast cancer are to benefit from a new pill on the NHS which reduces the risk of the disease coming back.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (Nice) has given the green light to abemaciclib, which cuts the chance of breast cancer returning after a patient has had surgery to remove a tumour.

Trials showed that patients who had the drug with hormone therapy had a more than 30% improved chance of their cancer not coming back after surgery, compared with hormone therapy alone.

“It’s fantastic thousands of women with this type of primary breast cancer will now have an additional treatment option available on the NHS to help further reduce the risk of the disease coming back,” said Delyth Morgan, the chief executive of charity Breast Cancer Now.

“The fear of breast cancer returning or spreading to other parts of their body and becoming incurable can cause considerable anxiety for so many women and their loved ones.

“New effective treatments such as abemaciclib, which can offer more women the chance to further reduce the risk of the disease recurring, are therefore extremely welcome and this is an important step change in the drug options available for this group of patients.”

The twice-a-day pill is suitable for women with hormone receptor-positive, HER2-negative, node-positive early breast cancer at high risk of recurrence who have had surgery. About 4,000 women will benefit initially, Nice said.

Helen Knight, the interim director of medicines evaluation at Nice, said the draft recommendation came less than a month after abemaciclib received its licence.

“The fact that we have been able to produce draft recommendations so quickly is testament to the success of our ambition to support patient access to clinically and cost effective treatments as early as possible,” said Knight. “Until now there have been no targeted treatments for people with this type of breast cancer.

“Abemaciclib with hormone therapy represents a significant improvement in how it is treated because being able to have a targeted treatment earlier after surgery will increase the chance of curing the disease and reduce the likelihood of developing incurable advanced disease.”

Abemaciclib works by targeting and inhibiting proteins in cancer cells which allow the cancer to divide and grow. It normally costs £2,950 for a packet of 56 150mg-tablets, but the manufacturer, Eli Lilly, has agreed an undisclosed discounted price for NHS England.

“Thanks in part to this latest deal struck by NHS England, NHS patients will be able to access another new targeted drug for a common and aggressive form of breast cancer,” said Prof Peter Johnson, the cancer director of NHS England.

“Abemaciclib, when used alongside a hormone therapy, offers a new, doubly targeted, treatment option, helping to increase the chances of beating the cancer for good, as well as meeting the NHS’s commitment to delivering improved cancer care under our long-term plan.”

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