Cutting the Covid self-isolation period to five days would “certainly help”, a cabinet minister has said.
Nadhim Zahawi also denied that the government intended to stop providing free lateral flow tests following a report in a Sunday newspaper.
People who test positive for Covid must self-isolate for at least seven days, but several industries are understaffed.
Mr Zahawi told the BBC that the country was transitioning “from pandemic to endemic.”
He claimed that shortening the period of self-isolation would help with employee absenteeism at work.
When asked about exams, the education secretary stated that they would take place, but that there was also contingency planning in place.
On the idea of stopping free lateral flow tests Mr Zahawi, a former vaccines minister, said he did not recognise the Sunday Times report, saying the government had ordered 425 million lateral flow devices in January.
“We are not calling to an end free lateral flow tests,” he said.
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The US recently reduced the self-isolation window to five days, and the education secretary stated that it is important to remember that in the UK, isolation begins when symptoms appear, whereas in the US, isolation begins when you test positive.
Mr Zahawi told BBC One’s Sunday Morning that the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) warned that shortening the period from seven to five days could result in a higher spike.
He stated that the government would adhere to the science while keeping the potential measure under review.
Rules on self-isolation for people in England infected with Covid changed last month, dropping from 10 days’ quarantine to seven if they test negative on days six and seven.
Scottish Health Secretary Humza Yousaf said his government was “not contemplating” reducing the isolation time to five days at this stage, having just made the change from 10 to seven days.
“I think it would be sensible to see the impact,” he said.
With vaccines and new treatments lowering the risk of Covid, what is considered proportionate shifts due to the need to balance the harms caused by the virus and those caused by suppressing it.
Consider the isolation period; infectiousness is not a toggle switch. It does not simply switch from on to off.
People, on the other hand, gradually transition from peak infectiousness to lower infectiousness.
The benefits of long isolation periods diminish as we become more able to live with the virus because it causes milder illness.
However, the costs of missing school or disrupting work remain.
Slowly but steadily, we will see a rollback of the remaining measures.
Plans were reportedly drawn up within the government to begin this as early as March, but the rise of Omicron set that back.
There are several options available. One example is shortening the isolation period even further and then terminating it unless an individual exhibits symptoms.
Another example is the removal of PCR testing infrastructure in the community. These lab tests are required to keep an eye on variants, but they can also be performed on hospital patients.
Prior to Mr Zahawi’s announcement that there were no plans to end free lateral flow tests, opposition politicians slammed the suggestion.
According to Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, such an approach to dealing with coronavirus would be “utterly wrongheaded.”
Ending free tests would be the wrong policy at the wrong time, according to Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, who added that the best way to avoid the need for further restrictions was to ensure that people could test regularly and stop spreading the virus.
“That’s why we believe those lateral flow tests must remain free as long as we have a large number of cases on a daily basis,” she explained.
Mr Zahawi also acknowledged that as coronavirus cases increase when students return, more school personnel will be absent from work to be isolated.
He stated that staff absenteeism was around 8.5 percent last week but “will undoubtedly increase, because now that schools are back, we’re going to see an increase in infection rates.”
Contingency plans are being developed for rising numbers of staff absences, according to the education secretary, who also stated that some schools have remained open despite up to 40% of staff being absent.
He stated that “exams in January will take place” and that “GCSEs and A-levels will take place in the summer.”
He did, however, add that there was “always contingency planning.”
There have been issues with staff absences in transport, health and schools as Covid cases rose over the festive period and in England Covid-related staff absences at hospitals have risen sharply since Omicron took hold last month.
And the boss of one of London’s busiest hospitals has said he is worried about losing staff when mandatory vaccination rules come in from April.
It comes as the UK recorded 141,472 new cases, as well as 97 deaths within 28 days of a positive test – although the number of deaths recorded over weekends tends to be lower because of reporting delays.
The total number of cases over the past seven days is up 6.6% on the previous week, while the figure for deaths is up 30.9%.