Coronavirus Article Bar with counter
The Chancellor is among Cabinet ministers backing calls to cut the Covid isolation period to five days amid growing pressure for the UK to shift to living with the virus.
Rishi Sunak and ministers from the main economic ministries believe cutting isolation from seven days could help reduce staffing shortages caused by the omicron variant, the Telegraph understands.
One government source suggested 60 per cent of the Cabinet were in favour of the move, although they stressed that such a move would have to be sanctioned as safe by scientists.
It comes as Covid cases fell for the fifth day in a row, to 141,472, with data also showing that cases have started to fall in some areas outside London, suggesting omicron may be reaching its peak across the country.
As debate grows over how the UK learns to live with the virus, a row has also broken out over whether the Government should continue to provide free Covid tests.
Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary, on Sunday became the first minister to publicly back cutting self-isolation to five days, in a move that would emulate the US and France.
Beyond the Chancellor, the Telegraph has been told that others who would favour the move because of potential economic benefits are Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the International Trade Secretary, and Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, provided it was borne out by the scientific evidence.
Mr Zahawi said the change, likely to be raised in Cabinet this week, would “certainly help mitigate some of the pressures on schools, on critical workforce and others”, as he warned of rising teacher absences.
Speaking on Sky’s Trevor Phillips on Sunday, Mr Zahawi added: “I hope we will be one of the first major economies to demonstrate to the world how you transition from pandemic to endemic and then deal with this however long it remains with us, whether that’s five, six, seven, 10 years.”
In a further sign of the growing desire within the Government to start living with the virus, Mr Zahawi said exams would fully return to normal next year, with no pandemic mitigations.
However, an apparent split has emerged over whether to limit free lateral flow tests to high-risk settings such as care homes, hospitals and schools.
Responding to reports from Whitehall sources that universal free tests could be axed within weeks, Mr Zahawi said it was “absolutely not where we are at”, pointing to the 425 million lateral flow kits ordered by Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary. “They will continue to be free,” he said.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, warned the move would be “utterly wrongheaded”, while Labour said it would be the “wrong decision at the wrong time” while cases were so high.
Plan B restrictions are to be reviewed on January 26, and government sources believe work from home guidance could be rescinded and vaccination passports shelved.
However, there is less consensus over masks. “I would be surprised if we moved away from masks on transport. They will need to be in place if people are going back to work and getting on to public transport,” said one government source.
On Sunday night, in the wake of backbench frustration at the Prime Minister’s imposition of the winter Covid measures, a new poll of Tory members found that 46 per cent thought that Mr Sunak would make a better leader.
Mark Harper, the Tory chairman of the lockdown-sceptic Covid Recovery Group, warned Mr Johnson he would face a massive revolt if he tried to extend the measures.
“I think there will be even more people against it,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times. “I think the intellectual argument now is even weaker.”
It comes as Dr Clive Dix, the former head of the UK’s vaccine taskforce, said the Covid virus should be treated more like flu from now on, with booster jabs reserved only for the most vulnerable and at-risk, amid signs that omicron is less severe than previous variants.
Fewer Covid patients are requiring ventilation in the omicron wave
He called for a “new normality” and a focus on disease management. “It is pointless keeping giving more and more vaccines to people who are not going to get very ill. We should just let them get ill and deal with that,” he said.
Some scientists have also backed the idea that mass Covid testing should end.
Paul Hunter, professor of medicine at the University of East Anglia and a WHO adviser, said lateral flow tests should be ditched when case numbers dropped to low levels.
“If we still have around half of what we’ve got at the moment, then it’s probably not a good idea to stop using lateral flows, but if we’re down to less than 10,000 a day, or something like that, then then it could well be the case that the majority of lateral flow positives are false positives and therefore they are more of a hindrance than a help.”
Humza Yousaf, the Scottish health secretary, said that the Holyrood government was not considering cutting the self-isolation period. He said it had already been risky for the Scottish Government to reduce the isolation period from 10 days to seven.
“The reason why we have made that decision – and it’s important to say that the UK nations all moved at a different pace on this – is that it’s not a risk-free option,” he said. “It’s not that there isn’t a risk attached with going from 10 days to seven days, there is a risk.
“It’s just that we wanted time to consider whether or not we would, inadvertently, for example, accelerate the transmission of the virus by cutting that isolation period.”
His comments echoed statements made by the Prime Minister. Asked on Jan 3 about cutting self-isolation to five days, Mr Johnson said: “We’ll continue to look at the infectivity periods, but the key thing is we don’t want to be releasing people back into the workplace when they’re still infectious.
“And the risk is you’d increase the numbers of people going back into the workplace who are infectious by a factor of three. So you might perversely have a negative effect on the workforce if you see what I mean, so that’s the argument we’re looking at.”