Hospitals have been told they can axe the two-metre social distancing rule in measures designed to help the NHS treat more patients.
Infection experts have now been asked to look at other areas – including GP surgeries – amid concern that such constraints are limiting access to face-to-face appointments.
New guidance on infection control relaxes such limits for hospitals and removes the requirement for all patients to isolate and undergo tests before planned surgery.
Hospital chiefs have said that such protocols introduced in the wake of Covid have constrained the running of services, equal to the loss of around one in 10 beds.
They said the changes would “increase efficiency and capacity” at a time when it was most needed, with a record 5.5 million people on NHS waiting lists.
The UK Health Security Agency said its review of the evidence suggested some “pragmatic” changes could be safely made.
These include reducing physical distancing requirements from two metres to one metre in areas where patient access can be controlled, with the two metre rule remaining in place in A&E departments. Requirements for “enhanced cleaning” in hospitals will be scaled back and no longer required in low-risk areas.
Officials said standard cleaning should be sufficient given that the World Health Organisation had found limited evidence on transmission of Covid via surfaces.
Under the new rules, most patients who are fully vaccinated will not need to isolate before treatment nor undergo PCR tests, though lateral flow tests will still be required.
Dr Jenny Harries, the UKHSA chief executive, said: “We have reviewed the existing Covid-19 IPC evidence based guidance and made a series of initial pragmatic recommendations on how local providers can start to safely remove some of the interventions that have been in place in elective care specifically for Covid-19.
“This is a first step to help the NHS treat more patients more quickly, while ensuring their safety and balancing their different needs for care.”
Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, said: “As ever more people benefit from the protection of our phenomenal vaccination campaign, we can now safely begin to relieve some of the most stringent infection control where they are no longer necessary to benefit patients and ease the burden on hardworking NHS staff.”
He said he looked forward to the UKHSA’s assessment of “what further steps can be taken in other healthcare settings including in primary care”.
Dr Layla McCay, director of policy at the NHS Confederation, said: “The recommended changes will help to increase efficiency and capacity within healthcare settings and give healthcare leaders and their teams the flexibility they need at a time when everyone is working so hard to increase the numbers of patients that can be safely diagnosed and treated.”
However, a number of hospitals have already introduced some of the changes, after international guidance changed.
Dr Simon Clarke, associate professor in cellular microbiology at the University of Reading, welcomed some of the changes.
But he said the removal of “enhanced cleaning smacks of corner cutting”, warning that hygiene was essential to prevent spread of many infections.
It came as Stormont ministers agreed to end social distancing for shops, theatres and a number of other indoor settings in Northern Ireland. At a meeting on Monday night, ministers decided to remove the one-metre distance requirement for the retail sector, indoor attractions and seated indoor venues. The measures are to take effect from 6pm on Thursday.