People who test positive for coronavirus must now isolate for seven days rather than 10, under new rules that allow positive cases to “test to release”.
Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, is said to be concerned that the Government’s 10-day isolation rules have had a crippling effect on the NHS because so many staff are off work with the virus.
From Wednesday, infected people will be required to conduct lateral flow tests on days six and seven of their isolation, and the period will end if both are negative.
Unvaccinated people who come into contact with a positive case will still be required to isolate for 10 days.
Figures show that by Sunday night, 4,700 NHS staff in London were absent from work, up 140 per cent on the previous week.
London named as ‘major incident’ zone
The capital, which has been hit hardest by the arrival of the omicron variant to the UK, has been named a “major incident” zone by Sadiq Khan, the city’s mayor.
If rates of staff absence continue to increase at the same rate, then one third of NHS staff will be absent by New Year’s Day.
The British Medical Association, which represents doctors, conducted analysis that suggested one in 10 NHS workers in England could be absent over the Christmas period.
The union has argued for Parliament to be recalled to approve restrictions on indoor gatherings, which it says would reduce strain on the health service.
On Tuesday night, a senior government source said that the reduction in the isolation period would go some way to easing the impact of staff shortages.
“This balanced and proportionate measure based on the advice of our expert clinical advisers will help reduce the disruption caused by Covid – including in the NHS where we are seeing some strain caused by staff absences related to Covid,” the source said.
People who test negative on day seven and leave isolation will nonetheless be advised to avoid poorly ventilated indoor spaces, work from home and limit contact with the vulnerable.
Mr Javid said: “We want to reduce the disruption from Covid-19 to people’s everyday lives. Following advice from our clinical experts, we are reducing the self-isolation period from 10 days to seven if you test negative on a LFD [lateral flow device] test for two days running.
“It’s vital people keep playing their part by testing regularly and isolating if they test positive. And I urge you to Get Boosted Now to protect yourself and those around you.”
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The rule change comes after the Tony Blair Institute recommended similar changes to reduce the strain on the health service, and called for the requirement for doctors and nurses to produce a negative PCR after coming into contact with the virus to be scrapped.
The shorter isolation period is also supported by Prof Neil Ferguson, who sits on the Government’s Sage committee and said seven days was likely to be sufficient as long as patients test negative on the last day.
“All the modelling and analysis would suggest if it is coupled with lateral flow testing, [isolating for just seven days is] not going to reduce the effectiveness of the measures that much,” he said.
Although the Government will be required to change the law to formally alter the rules, existing regulations make provision for positive cases with a “reasonable excuse” not to isolate.
The Government now considers testing negative for the virus after seven days as a “reasonable excuse” to leave isolation.
Ministers will change the isolation regulations in Parliament in the new year.