Self-isolation rules should be scrapped from Easter while Covid becomes the common cold, a leading scientist has suggested.
The requirement to stay at home for seven days after testing positive for the virus – cut from ten days with a “test to release” clause last week – is causing chaos throughout the economy as staff absences soar.
The crisis has hit the NHS particularly hard, with 18,829 healthcare staff off work because of coronavirus up to December 19, while absence levels in London – 3,874 – have surpassed last year’s levels.
Rail networks and airlines are also experiencing a wave of cancellations, while schools are drawing up emergency plans for the new term in January to tackle depleted workforces.
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said people with Covid should be allowed to "go about their normal lives", after experts said omicron manifested itself as a mild cold in many cases.
Asked on BBC Breakfast about NHS staff shortages due to workers having to isolate, he said: "This is a disease that’s not going away, the infection is not going away, although we’re not going to see as severe disease for much longer.
"Ultimately, we’re going to have to let people who are positive with Covid go about their normal lives as they would do with any other cold. And so, at some point, we’ve got to relax this.
"If the self-isolation rules are what’s making the pain associated with Covid, then we need to do that perhaps sooner rather than later.”
He suggested that “once we’re past Easter, perhaps, then maybe we should start to look at scaling back, depending on, of course, what the disease is at that time”.
Prof Hunter, a leading medical authority, added: "Covid is only one virus of a family of coronaviruses, and the other coronaviruses throw off new variants typically every year or so, and that’s almost certainly what’s going to happen with Covid – it will become effectively just another cause of the common cold.”
Echoing the calls of MPs in recent months, he said Covid would not warrant the daily reporting of case numbers going forward.
‘Staff absence bigger challenge for NHS than Covid patients’
Earlier on Tuesday, the NHS Providers chief executive Chris Hopson warned staff absences could pose a bigger challenge to the health service than patients needing treatment for Covid.
He told BBC Breakfast: "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.
"So what we’re seeing is in some hospitals, we’re now having to redeploy staff to fill the gaps that are being left in critical and essential services by staff who are off with Covid-related absences."
Schools are drawing up plans to send whole year groups home and bring back remote learning home amid growing concern that the omicron variant will lead to staff shortages spiralling out of control in January.
The Government has already admitted that schools are likely to face disruption until Easter and urged retired staff to return to the classroom.
To help ease pressure on the workforce, the required period of self-isolation after testing positive for Covid was cut from 10 days to seven if the person shows a negative lateral flow test result on days six and seven.
Covid staff shortages are also disrupting festive travel as more than a fifth of train firms have been hit by cancellations.
The spread of the more transmissible variant has seen scores of flights cancelled from the UK and thousands internationally, as well as outbreaks on cruise ships.