Boris Johnson has defended his policy on coronavirus self-isolation despite warnings it will lead to millions of people forced to stay at home and cause major problems for businesses.
The Prime Minister has promised to tear up most of England’s coronavirus regulations at Step 4 of the road map, expected on July 19, but changes to self-isolation rules will not be brought in until August 16.
The expected surge in cases as a result of restrictions being lifted is predicted to lead to millions of contacts being “pinged” by the NHS Covid-19 app or being told by by contact tracers to isolate.
From August 16, people in England who have received both doses of a vaccine – as well as the under-18s – will no longer have to self-isolate if they have been in contact with someone who tests positive for Covid-19.
In a sign of business concerns, Iceland supermarket boss Richard Walker said the different timings would result in a “shit show” for firms.
“Our Covid-related absences are growing exponentially,” he said.
“Within a week or two they’ll be the highest ever. Covid rules end 19 July. Self-isolation rules not eased until 16 August.
“This will be a shit show for business.”
At Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Johnson refused to say how many contacts would be required to self-isolate before the changes are introduced.
“What we will be doing is moving away from self-isolation towards testing over the course of the next few weeks, and that is the prudent approach,” he told MPs.
Mr Johnson has said there could be 50,000 cases a day by July 19 and ministers have warned this could rise to 100,000 later in the summer.
Wednesday saw a further 32,548 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK, the highest daily reported total since January 23, and a further 33 deaths.
The number of Covid-19 patients in hospital in England stood at 2,144 as of 8am on Wednesday, according to the latest figures from NHS England – up 43% from a week earlier and the highest number since April 10.
And a total of 416 hospital admissions of people with Covid-19 in England were reported for Monday, NHS England also said, up 70% from a week earlier and the highest number since March 15.
In response to questioning from Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer Mr Johnson said scientists are “absolutely clear that we have severed the link between infection and serious disease and death” as a result of the vaccination programme.
But on Monday the Government’s chief scientific adviser Sir Patrick Vallance was more cautious, saying “vaccines have weakened the link between cases and hospitalisations, but it’s a weakened link, not a completely broken link”.
As Sir Keir and Mr Johnson clashed in the Commons, the Prime Minister challenged the Labour leader to say whether he supported the planned lifting of restrictions on July 19.
Sir Keir said: “We should open up in a controlled way, keeping baseline protections such as masks on public transport, improving ventilation, making sure the Track and Trace system remains effective, and ensuring proper payments for self-isolation.”
Hospitality chiefs have warned that the delay between restrictions being lifted and the self-isolation rules being eased risks “the summer being cancelled and vast swathes of the population unnecessarily confined to their homes”.
Kate Nicholls, boss of trade body UKHospitality, said: “With cases predicted to continue to rise, this means that hospitality’s recovery after 16 months of lockdown and severely disrupted trading will be harmed.”
Former Tory leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said: “Why would you even go to a pub (after July 19)? This makes it worse.”
He told the Daily Telegraph: “I wouldn’t go to a pub that wasn’t still having six around a table and social distancing, otherwise you run the risk of everyone in the pub being pinged and locked down.”
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng acknowledged “it’s a balance, it’s not a perfect solution” but told Sky News: “On the one hand we’re saying that we can reopen and on the other we’re saying that we want to give a little bit more protection in terms of the self-isolation rules.”
Free market think tank the Adam Smith Institute predicted 100,000 daily cases would result in 3.5 million people a week being forced to self-isolate.
But the think tank’s projections were for an even higher level of daily infections, up to 133,000 by August 4, which would result in 4.6 million a week self-isolating.
Professor Christophe Fraser, from Oxford University’s Nuffield Department of Medicine, who advises NHS Test and Trace, told Times Radio: “At the moment the epidemic is growing exponentially; we know that exponential (growth) very rapidly leads to big numbers – we’re two doublings away from 100,000 cases a day. And the doubling rate has been consistently between nine and 11 days so that’s not a lot of time ahead.
“And we don’t know when that’s going to peak – the different models have different projections, there’s considerable uncertainty at what stage the epidemic is going to peak.”
He added that 100,000 cases a day “would result in a large amount of people being traced”.
Meanwhile, Heathrow will provide fast-track lanes for fully-vaccinated arrivals as the airline industry steps up pressure on ministers to open up quarantine-free travel to amber destinations.
Under a pilot programme to be launched this week, passengers from selected destinations will be able to upload their coronavirus vaccination certificate before boarding.
On arrival at the airport, they will then be directed to dedicated lanes at the border to speed their passage through immigration.
The move comes ahead of an expected announcement on Thursday when Transport Secretary Grant Shapps will set out details of the Government’s plans to end the requirement for travellers from amber list countries to self-isolate on arrival.
The Prime Minister is said to favour easing the controls from July 19 – in line with Step 4 – according to The Times.
Heathrow, together with British Airways and Virgin Atlantic – the two airlines involved in the trial programme – said it is essential there is no delay in implementing the changes.
The scheme will initially involve fully-vaccinated volunteers travelling on selected flights from Athens, Los Angeles, Montego Bay in Jamaica, and New York.
Heathrow chief executive John Holland-Kaye said: “This pilot will allow us to show that pre-departure and arrival checks of vaccination status can be carried out safely at check-in, so that fully-vaccinated passengers can avoid quarantine from July 19.”