Covid guidance is being toughened across the UK to try to prevent a surge in cases before Christmas, with a focus on more rapid tests and home working. But scientists said messaging must be reinforced with a significant government publicity blitz.

In an update to official guidance, people in England are now advised to take a lateral flow test (LFT) if they expect to be in a “high risk situation” that day, such as spending time in “crowded and enclosed spaces” and where “there is limited fresh air”.

Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, called on Tuesday for people to take a test whenever they planned to socialise with others, whether at home or out, or if going shopping somewhere crowded. “The most precious gift we can give anyone this Christmas is to be fully vaccinated or tested before we meet, hug or spend time with them,” she told MSPs in her regular Covid update.

Sturgeon also announced that, from 6 December, people in Scotland would be able to show proof of a recent negative LFT result as part of the country’s Covid passport system. People in Scotland have been required to show proof of vaccination to enter nightclubs and large events like music festivals and football matches since October.

In what Sturgeon described as a “very finely balanced decision”, the Scottish cabinet decided not to extend the passport scheme to theatres, cinemas and hospitality venues, however.

In Northern Ireland, existing messaging on trying to work from home where possible has been strengthened, with people also now advised to wear masks indoors and limit social contacts. The Welsh government has already said it could extend its existing Covid pass scheme to pubs and restaurants, with a decision due next month.

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In England, with ministers resistant to introducing the “plan B” for winter Covid mitigation, the change in testing advice is billed by officials as part of a wider focus on personal responsibility, with no compulsion to take a test before Christmas shopping.

While the advice is being incorporated into an existing information campaign called “Stop Covid hanging around”, scientists called for more to be done. “We need really strong public messaging and for our leaders to lead by example,” said Alan McNally, professor in microbial evolutionary genomics at the University of Birmingham.

“I don’t think anyone knows what’s going to happen in the next couple of months, but if we want to avoid another dreadful Christmas because cases get out of control, then we need some new public messaging on TV and radio and to have some [prime ministerial] briefings to the public.”

McNally, who helped set up the Lighthouse Covid lab in Milton Keynes, said the new advice failed to make clear that while a positive LFT nearly always means the person is infected, a negative result does not mean they are virus-free, and that even people who tested negative should take precautions, including using masks.

People who are vaccinated should also test before going into “high-risk situations” he said, adding that the virus was still spreading among those who had received their shots, even though the vaccine greatly reduced their chances of falling seriously ill.

Iain Buchan, professor of public health and clinical informatics at Liverpool University, said “test before you go” should cut the spread of Covid unless it led to large numbers of people going to crowded places who would otherwise not have gone. “The communications around ‘test before you go’ should remind people that they first need to get vaccinated and take other precautions such as wearing face coverings in crowded enclosed spaces where possible,” he said.

Miriam Deakin, director of policy and strategy at NHS Providers, which represents hospitals, welcomed the new official guidance but urged ministers to closely follow the latest Covid data and take all the “necessary steps” to prevent the NHS from being overwhelmed.

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