Evening Standard comment: 14 days isolation is not working for majority | Not another lockdown

·3-min read
Christian Adams
Christian Adams

Answer honestly — have you deleted the NHS Test and Trace app? Do you avoid the 0300 call?

The app was meant to be a game changer that would help slow a second wave. By that measure it has failed. Clearly, contact rates by the app are still far too low but there is something else at play: the incentives are all wrong.

Check in at a restaurant and if the stranger at the next table tests positive for Covid-19, you will be told to isolate for 14 days. Such a long period of time ignores the reality of human behaviour.

Many people will be unable to work from home and cannot afford to forgo a day, let alone two weeks’ full pay. Others will be looking forward to enjoying half term with their children or simply seeing their loved ones, even if outside.

Compliance is key to any public health campaign and it is reliant on two beliefs. First, that the ask is seen to be reasonable and not over burdensome. Second, people need to believe that everyone else is doing it — that they are not the suckers for following the rules.

The 14-day quarantine falls down on both these metrics. Two weeks is too long. A shorter period of a few days is far more likely to attract greater adherence.

Indeed, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has already floated the idea of a seven-day quarantine for international arrivals. If it is good enough for travellers, why not for the general population? Insufficient testing capacity is not a sufficient answer.

Two weeks is proving too long to ask of people to self-isolate and expect high levels of compliance

Then there is the fairness issue. If you are the chief executive of a FTSE 100 company and you find out you were in close contact with a positive case, you are unlikely to quarantine for the full 14 days. You wait a few days, get a private test and go back to work.

Some might pay for the £120 Boots test but many cannot afford that. People who delete the NHS app or give a fake number at the pub are not callous or uncaring. They are acting to maintain their jobs, mental health and some semblance of normality.

The Government complains that public observance of the rules is worse than in the spring. It should reassess the self-isolation period with speed. Greater compliance around quarantine that works around people’s real-world behaviour will be far more effective and slow this disease.

Not another lockdown

The latest advice from SAGE, the Government’s scientific advisers, makes for grim reading. Modelling projects that the second wave could lead to more deaths than the first.

We have repeatedly called for a balanced approach to fighting the pandemic, one that recognises that enormous toll of harsh restrictions on both our economy and our collective mental health.

We have also been clear on our red lines. That the NHS must not be overwhelmed and young people should continue to receive an education.

We accept that at a certain point, further restrictions are necessary. But they can be prevented or even reversed by a functioning test and trace system as well as greater enforcement. This would go a long way to regaining some of the trust the Government has forfeited since the summer.

There is no alternative to controlling the virus. Doing nothing has never been an option. But we must confront Covid in a way that allows us to live with it. Another lockdown, with its ruinous impact, cannot be the only answer.

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