Scots who test positive for Covid-19 should be quarantined in hotels due to fears that orders to self-isolate are being widely ignored, an expert has said.
Professor Hugh Pennington, Emeritus Professor of Microbiology at Aberdeen University, said he believed the commandeering of hotels could be “the only solution” to what he suspects is widespread non-compliance.
He has become the latest expert to back the adoption of South Korean-style ‘Covid hotels’, telling The Daily Telegraph that they had also proved a success in countries such as New Zealand and Australia.
Professor Devi Sridhar, an influential adviser to Nicola Sturgeon last week also called for people told to isolate to be given the option to do so away from their friends and family in facilities taken over by the NHS.
Pressure for the policy to be adopted has grown after Ms Sturgeon admitted there is no “solid reliable data” for the number of people following orders to self-isolate, although the evidence that does exist suggests full compliance is low. Contacts of those who test positive are largely told to self-isolate through text message, rather than receiving a call from an NHS staff member.
Scotland has so far taken a soft-touch approach to quarantine. While those who break other rules, such as to wear face masks in shops or limit social gatherings, can be fined, there is no legal obligation to self-isolate. In England, a legal requirement is in place and those who “recklessly” break rules can face a £4,000 fine.
While the First Minister has responded to a recent surge in cases by imposing more draconian restrictions on the wider public, unveiling a five-tier system for local lockdowns last week, Prof Pennington said he believed the biggest issue behind the rise was a failure to self-isolate.
“The data suggests only about 20 per cent of people are fully self-isolating when they are asked to, which drives a coach and horses through the test and protect system,” he said. “You can test until your heart’s content, but if people aren’t acting on the basis of the result if it’s positive, you might as well not have tested them in the first place.”
Jason Leitch, the Scottish Government’s National Clinical Director, last week pointed to polling evidence which suggested that 69 per cent of Scots had said they would self-isolate and book a test if they developed symptoms. However, a study by academics at King’s College London found that a near-identical proportion of people - 70 per cent - said they would self-isolate if they developed symptoms, but fewer than one in five UK-wide who became ill had actually done so.
“It’s major problem,” Prof Pennington said. “The only solution that would actually work in practice is to put people in hotels, which is what they’ve done in Australia and New Zealand. The advantage is you can keep close tabs on people and you can have a medical back-up, in case someone becomes very ill.”
He suggested the stays could be presented as “voluntary holidays” using high-quality hotels, with wages for workers covered so they did not lose out financially.
“If you want to control the virus, and really go back to the eradication idea which has been done successfully in China and New Zealand, they should look at this,” he said.
“If you did that, and made it worthwhile to stay in these hotels and explain why it’s being done, and make sure their wages are paid while they’re in there, my guess is that may well be the only way we can get to grips with this thing.
“Closing pubs is one thing, and does a lot of damage to the hospitality trade, but it’s not going to stop the virus because only a minority of cases are transmitted in pubs.”
In New Zealand, which Ms Sturgeon has repeatedly cited as an example of a country dealing effectively with the virus, those able to enter the country from overseas are required to complete 14 days in “managed isolation”. An individual staying in a single room is charged £1,585 for the stint in quarantine.
Asked about the prospect of introducing Covid hotels in Scotland last week, Ms Sturgeon said she would speak to Prof Sridhar, chair in Global Public Health at the University of Edinburgh, about the idea. The Scottish Government offers grants of £500 to support those asked to self-isolate, although these are only paid to those in receipt of welfare payments.
The First Minister has said she has not so far introduced a legal requirement to self-isolate or fines as she fears this could put people off coming forward for testing.
A Scottish Government spokesman said: “The most effective way to stop the spread of this virus is for people who have tested positive, or have been in contact with a positive case, to self-isolate.
"If someone has been advised to self-isolate, action and adherence to restrictions is essential to save lives and protect from infection.
“We want to see people participate willingly and voluntarily with self-isolation, recognising the importance of taking part in the protection of themselves, their community and loved ones. Survey data is telling us that people are complying with guidance.
“But we recognise that self-isolation is not easy and we want to support people to do the right thing. That’s why we set up the National Assistance Helpline for those who cannot get the help they need from family, friends and neighbours and also why we have also provided a Self-Isolation Support Grant for low income workers who face losing income when asked to isolate.”