Proposals to allow fully vaccinated adults to take Covid tests for five days instead of isolating are under consideration by ministers, amid warnings that life this summer will be “massively disrupted” by the current rules.
On Sunday, Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister, signalled that the current requirement for the double jabbed to remain at home for 10 days after being “pinged” by the NHS app needs to be looked at afresh.
He stressed that the app had initially been “developed and operationalised at a time when we didn't have vaccines”, but should now reflect “the new context of this massive vaccination programme”.
Speaking on Trevor Phillips On Sunday on Sky News, he said: “The team are looking at how we use that app in terms of alerting people to those around them who test positive.”
Changes to the current regime could include “being able to take maybe five days, as we have piloted, of lateral flow tests and upload them to the system, rather than having to self isolate”, he revealed.
His intervention came after Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, last week said moves were afoot to tweak the app by scaling down its “sensitivity”. Whitehall sources said this meant reviewing the threshold of the physical distance and duration of coming into “close contact” with a confirmed Covid case before issuing an order for someone to self isolate.
The instruction is advisory when made by the app, but required under law when issued by NHS Test and Trace call handlers.
On Sunday night, a Government source played down the suggestion there would be any “imminent” change from the self isolation rules to test-and-release for those “pinged” by the app who have received both jabs.
The current isolation rules are due to lift on August 16, at which point people who are double vaccinated will be able to take a single, optional PCR test instead of shutting themselves away at home.
Critics have lashed out at the Government over delaying the expiry of self isolation for vaccinated Britons beyond the end of legal Covid restrictions, which are pencilled in to end on July 19.
Boris Johnson’s decision to retain the isolation rules for another four weeks was driven in part by rising coronavirus cases, which are set to continue to soar until mid-August, at which point modelling suggests this wave will reach its peak and begin to decline.
However, the Government faces pressure to accelerate the timetable to ease the isolation system, amid fears that people are deleting or disabling the NHS app due to a spike in “exposure alerts” being issued on account of rising coronavirus infections.
The latest data show the app issued more than 350,000 alerts during the last week of June, up 60 per cent on the previous week.
More than 4.6 million people could be forced into self isolation each week by early August under the current rules, according to an analysis by the Adam Smith Institute, a neoliberal think tank.
A senior statistics expert on Sunday warned that life is set to be “massively disrupted” by people being told to self-isolate as cases rise in coming weeks.
Professor Sir David Spiegelhalter, a statistician from the University of Cambridge, said it would make sense to get the rules “in proportion”.
If people are vaccinated and then pinged by the app, it is a “very low percentage” who have “actually got the virus”, he said.
He told BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show: “Few people told to self-isolate actually have an infection, and especially if they're vaxxed, and so I do think it makes sense to get this in proportion to actually 'what are the benefits of this massive disruption?'”
It is “absolutely inevitable” there will be a “big wave” of coronavirus cases as restrictions are lifted, Sir David added.
NHS Providers, which represents trusts in England, said a growing number of trusts had reported concerns in recent days about how self-isolation of staff is now “significantly impacting their ability to deliver care”.
Downing Street said last week that ahead of step four of restrictions being lifted, officials were examining whether NHS staff could be freed of the obligation to self-isolate if “pinged” by the Covid app.
Mr Zahawi stressed that health workers are already able to ignore the “advisory” instruction by the NHS app to self isolate, if they feel confident they are sufficiently protected from becoming infected by their personal protective equipment.
Hospitality chiefs have hit out against the delay between restrictions being lifted and self-isolation rules being eased, cautioning that the move risks “the summer being cancelled and vast swathes of the population unnecessarily confined to their homes”.
Mr Javid has warned case numbers could reach 100,000 per day in the summer as measures are eased, and Sir David said he thinks this is “quite possible”, adding that relaxing “everything at once on July 19 will only make that more likely”.
Professor Sir Ian Diamond, the UK's national statistician, said the experts are “keeping an absolutely close, minute-by-minute eye” on the number of Covid-19 infections, and that in terms of antibody levels, the UK is doing “very well”.
He said the link between infections and being admitted to hospital, having serious disease and dying has been “severely weakened”.