Test and Trace wrongly tells people with Covid to self-isolate for 10 days

People testing positive for Covid – and their families – are still being told in NHS messages to self-isolate for 10 days, in apparent contravention of new guidance issued by ministers.

The Telegraph has learned that people are still being warned that they must quarantine for the full period – even though the Government has said this can be cut to a week or less for most people, providing they self-test.

The messages risk causing confusion and jeopardise attempts to keep the economy and key public services operating, as Covid cases soar to record levels.

On Tuesday, Conservative MPs and representatives of the hospitality industry reacted furiously to the approach adopted by officials. One MP accused it of trying "to undermine ministers" with the guidance.

The head of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and other business groups said that everything must now be done to minimise disruption to people’s lives, as evidence mounts to suggest that omicron is not causing serious illness to those who are vaccinated. The United States has cut its isolation period to just five days.

Omicron: Record number of cases, but illness less severe

On Tuesday, there were a record 129,471 new Covid cases in the UK. There were also a record 179,807 new cases in France. In Italy, the daily tally of new infections nearly tripled, from 30,810 to 78,313.

However, there is growing evidence that omicron cases are not translating into severe disease or deaths – and that a major threat posed by the virus may now be the disruption it causes.

Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, said that many of those recorded as being in hospital with the virus have "incidental Covid", because they were admitted to treat another condition.

He warned that staff absence owing to Covid self-isolation was "probably going to be a bigger problem and a bigger challenge" for the health service than the numbers needing treatment for the virus.

Proportion of increase in Covid inpatients being driven by true Covid cases

The Telegraph can disclose that the email from officials at NHS Test and Trace, sent on Christmas Day, stated: "You recently tested positive for Covid-19 and must now stay at home and self-isolate for at least 10 days."

The email says people must isolate for 10 days, even though the rules have changed

A similar text message, sent from the official NHSresult number, said: "Make sure you and the people you live with continue to self-isolate for 10 days."

A text message telling people to self-isolate for 10 days

The alerts, which were sent to some people who had tested positive for Covid recently, do not mention last week’s rule change by Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary. That cut isolation from 10 days to seven, with negative lateral flow results on days six and seven.

The text also fails to mention the rule change on December 14, which meant contacts of Covid cases who are fully vaccinated or under 18 can avoid isolation by testing daily for a week instead.

‘Last thing we need is confusing mixed messaging’

David Jones, a former Tory minister, said: "This seems a clear case of officials trying to undermine decisions made by democratically accountable ministers.

“The rule changes were made after full consideration of the relevant evidence. Officials now have a responsibility to implement those changes, not ignore them. They must get out of the ‘Whitehall knows best’ mentality.”

William Wragg, the Tory chairman of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, which oversees the work of the Civil Service, said: “The UK Health Security Agency does not govern the country and as such should follow the instructions given to it by ministers. The policy on test and release has been updated and should be communicated to the public properly.”

Andrew Bridgen, the Tory MP, added: "Rather than self-isolation for more people, the Government should cut self-isolation to five days, supported by a lateral flow test to get the country back to work.

"The biggest threat to the UK economy is enforced absenteeism due to self-isolation. It looks like an over-reaction that Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford would be proud of – they are moving in the opposite ways to ministerial guidance."

Kate Nicholls, the chief executive of UK Hospitality, which represents the country’s bars, restaurants, hotels and nightclubs, added: "It is vital that advice provided through the app or by text messages is updated immediately to reflect the latest ministerial decision to replace self-isolation requirements with daily seven-day testing.

"This much-needed change by ministers was introduced to keep the economy moving and reduce high staff absentee rates – balancing the needs of the economy and people’s low-risk activities with the need to protect public health.

"The last thing we need is confusing mixed messaging undermining this pragmatic approach designed to keep essential services and the food supply chain moving."

Lord Bilimoria, president of the CBI, told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: "We have got to do everything we can to stop the disruption to our lives and to our livelihoods and to the economy in as safe a way as possible.

"We need people to isolate for as little time as possible."

Calls to cut Covid self-isolation period further

On Tuesday, British scientists argued that the length of time needed to self-isolate could be cut further.

Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at the University of Oxford, said that he would back a move to five days if there was science to support the move.

“That’s one way to deal with the quarantine issue,” he told BBC Radio 4. "My view is that natural flow tests are quite a good way of marking infectiousness and you could have sequential lateral flow tests.

“That is, in my view, a much better way to measure and quantitate whether we’re allowing people to go back into the community who are infectious.”

Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said that the Government should consider abandoning self-isolation for those catching coronavirus within months, to allow the country to begin living with the virus.

He told BBC Breakfast: "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.

"So personally, I think it would be unlikely that we are going to do anything like that whilst we’re still coping with omicron, but 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."

A senior source said NHS England “were not involved” in sending the tects, adding that the messages were handled by Test and Trace, part of the UK Health Security Agency.

A UKHSA spokesman said: “Legislation on the self-isolation period remains 10 days but as widely publicised by UKHSA , our guidance has been updated to include an exemption that can be applied to reduce self-isolation to seven days in most cases, if you test negative on two lateral flow tests consecutively and taken at least 24 hours apart, with the first test taken on day six at the earliest.

“The stay at home guidance for people testing positive and their household contacts is clear and widely communicated to ensure people know how to protect themselves and others.”

The Telegraph has approached spokesmen for Mr Javid and 10 Downing Street for comment.

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