No plans to change current seven-day period to ease NHS staff shortages, says Chloe Smith
Calls for a reduction in England’s Covid self-isolation period from seven days to five in order to ease NHS staff shortages have been dismissed by a government minister.
Chloe Smith, the minister for disabled people, health and work, said the previous period of 10 days had only recently been cut by three. That came after a senior NHS official warned that staff absences due to Covid over the winter months – exacerbated by underlying shortages – was likely to pose the NHS a bigger problem than the number of Omicron-related patients being hospitalised.
“There are no current plans in England to change that period,” Smith told BBC Breakfast on Wednesday. “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.”
On Tuesday, US health authorities halved the recommended isolation time for people with asymptomatic Covid to five days. A leading immunologist suggested the UK could follow a similar path if rapid testing capacity and quality could support it.
Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University and the government’s life sciences adviser, said illness associated with Omicron was proving less severe than with previous variants.
“My view is that lateral flow tests are quite a good way of marking who is infectious and who isn’t and, as you know, we’ve dropped from 10 days to seven days if you have sequential lateral flow tests. That is a much better way to measure and quantitate whether we are allowing people to go back into the community who are infectious,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Wednesday.
Asked if he thought that should lead to a further cut to the self-isolation period in England, he said: “If it was supported by lateral flow data, yes.”
Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, which represents the healthcare system in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, told Today that a decrease in the self-isolation period would help ease the staffing crisis. But he acknowledged that ministers needed to carefully balance that against the risk of increasing transmission.
Boris Johnson, who has ruled out any additional restrictions in England before the new year, has been accused of going missing in action this week. Dr Chaand Nagpaul, the chair of the British Medical Association’s ruling council, suggested the prime minister has ignored “the elephant in the room” of staff absence levels, the Financial Times reported on Tuesday.
And the chief executive of NHS Providers, Chris Hopson, has warned that the effect of greater social mixing over Christmas is still to come, telling BBC Breakfast the same day that the NHS was bracing for an increase in patients being hospitalised with Omicron.
Staff self-isolations are putting the NHS under severe strain, with one union leader saying that already overstretched public services are in a “perilous state” and experts warning of a “worst case scenario” in which up to 40% of NHS staff in London are unable to work.
Hopson added: “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.”