‘No current plans’ to cut Covid self-isolation period to five days, says minister

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There are “no current plans” to cut the Covid isolation period in England to five days, a Government minister said on Wednesday.

Boris Johnson is facing pressure to cut the Covid self-isolation period to five days in a bid avert an NHS staffing crisis.

But Chloe Smith, minister for disabled people, health and work, ruled out a change to the self-isolation period.

She told BBC Breakfast: “There are no current plans in England to change that period.

“Of course, we have actually only recently taken it down from 10 to seven, and we want to look at that – we want to make sure that that is working as we believe it ought to.

“We think the current period, therefore, is the right one, so we haven’t any plans to change that further.”

Any decision to cut the Covid self-isolation period to five days “would have to be based on very clear evidence” that it will not drive a rise in infections, an NHS leader has said.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, acknowledged staff absence “is a huge issue for the NHS right now” but said the case for amending isolation rules further needs to be made clear.

It comes after infections hit a record high on Tuesday, with a further 129,471 cases reported, but that figure only includes data from England and Wales and reflects different time periods.

NHS bosses have warned that staff shortages, being caused by the requirement to self-isolate for seven days after a positive test, could cause a more significant problem than the number of Covid-19 patents being admitted to hospital.

Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, said: “We’re now seeing a significant increase in the level of staff absences, and quite a few of our chief executives are saying that they think that that’s probably going to be a bigger problem and a bigger challenge for them than necessarily the number of people coming in who need treatment because of Covid.”

Up to four in ten NHS staff in London could be absent owing to the seven-day isolation rule, according to some estimates.

Last week 3,784 NHS staff were absent because of Covid, more than double the previous week’s total.

The total number of health workers self-isolating in England has risen from 12,240 to 18,820 in a week.

Scientists, health professionals, hospitality chiefs and Conservative MPs are calling upon the Prime Minister to look to the US for guidance, after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced it would reduce its self-isolation period from 10 to five days.

Last week, ministers reduced it from 10 to seven days.

Up to 800,000 people are estimated to be in isolation over the festive period, causing widespread disruption to public services from bin collections to rail services and to businesses across the country.

And everyday more people are starting self-isolation, with another daily record of 117,093 cases in England on Tuesday.

Wales reported another 12,378 positive tests, taking the total up to 129,471, despite Scotland and Northern Ireland being yet to report their figures.

Some have expressed concern that schools will face a tumultuous start to the new term next week, if infections continue to rise at record levels.

Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia, said the isolation period in Britain would have to be cut further.

He said Covid would become “effectively just another cause of the common cold”, saying: “We’re going to have to let people who are positive go about their normal lives as they would do with any other cold.

“I think the whole issue of how long are we going to be able to allow people to self-isolate if they’re positive is going to have to be discussed fairly soon, because I think this is a disease that’s not going away.”

Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, said that he would back five-day isolation on condition that people were showing a negative test result on lateral flow tests.

The rapid tests were a “better way to measure if we’re allowing people to go back into community” than arbitrary isolation periods, he said.

Professor Tim Spector, who runs King’s College London’s Zoe Covid symptoms study, has argued that reducing the isolation period to five days would help to “protect the economy” - a move which is backed by the likes of the beleaguered hospitality industry, which has been hit by staff shortages throughout the pandemic.

On Monday health chiefs in the United States decided to halve the self-isolation period for asymptomatic Americans who test positive for Covid from ten to five days.

Kate Nicholls, chief executive of UKHospitality, said ministers should follow suit in a bid to “keep the economy moving”.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister is also facing pressure from backbenchers to relax self-isolation rules.

Theresa Villiers, who was former cabinet secrety, said there needed to “pragmatism to ensure there isn’t another pingdemic”, referring to events over the summer which saw hundreds of thousands of people isolating after being ‘pinged’ by the NHS Covid App.

However Shadow work and pensions secretary Jonathan Ashworth said the Government should avoid “rushing into” cutting Covid isolation times.

Asked about calls for the isolation period to be reduced to five days, he told Sky News on Wednesday: “I think we should always follow the advice of our leading scientists, medical scientists like Chris Whitty and Patrick Vallance, and I don’t think they've given an opinion on this.”

He added: “Let's see what they say on this before rushing into this.”

Mr Ashworth said politicians “should always be careful to listen to scientific experts”.

A government source had said that although the US decision was respected, there are no plans to follow suit in Britain, where changes to the self-isolation period have only been recently made.

A spokeswoman for the Government said: “Anyone who takes a negative lateral flow test on days six and seven of their self-isolation period can end their isolation early, following analysis by the UK Health Security Agency that this has a similar protective effect to a ten-day isolation without lateral flow testing.”

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