Pressure is mounting on the Government to cut England’s Covid isolation period as it emerged that health chiefs misled ministers over the proposal.
School leaders today backed calls to ease the rules as they revealed classes of more than 100 children are being taught in sports halls because of teacher shortages.
Dame Maura Regan, chief executive of Bishop Hogarth Catholic Education Trust, said schools would ‘welcome’ the move to prevent more disruption to pupils’ education.
The backing comes after business chiefs, MPs and even NHS leaders urged No10 to look at following the United States in cutting isolation to five days to ease pressure on the economy and vital services.
But the move was ruled out by the UK Health Security Agency, which claimed that comparisons with US were ‘not like for like’.
Last night it emerged that the quango incorrectly told ministers that the country’s self-isolation period started from the date of a positive test rather than from when symptoms first emerge, as it does in the UK.
Ministers had repeatedly cited the false advice in recent days when explaining why Government was moving so slowly on the issue.
It also emerged the UKHSA had not even modelled the safety or benefit of moving to five days until now, as it wrongly believed the idea had no chance of being ‘adopted as policy’.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid was last night said to be angered by the blunders and Boris Johnson has asked the UKHSA to look again at the change.
In a thinly-veiled dig at the health quango, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said today: ‘If it is possible to go further, we’d want to act quickly. But it needs to be based on the latest evidence and that work is still ongoing. We certainly haven’t received any further updated advice.’
Boris Johnson (pictured returning from his morning run today) has asked the UKHSA to look again at cutting isolation to five days
UKHSA boss Jenny Harries, the former deputy chief medical who was awarded a damehood in the New Year honours. She has come under criticism in the past for defending the decision to ditch testing and contact tracing at the start of the pandemic, which was widely seen as a failure
The PM’s spokesman revealed the prospect of cutting the period of isolation after testing positive for Covid was not discussed by Cabinet ministers today.
But he said the Government was ‘gathering the latest evidence’.
Covid cases are now falling in EVERY region except the North East
Covid cases are now falling in every region except the North East, according to official figures which add to an ever-growing pile of evidence that the worst of the Omicron outbreak may be over.
UK Health Security Agency statistics show rates in London — which was the first area to fall victim to the highly-transmissible variant — started to trend downwards before Christmas, which sparked hopes that the rest of the nation would soon follow suit.
Now Government Covid data shows cases are finally on their way down in seven out of England’s eight other regions, suggesting the wave may have peaked across much of the country.
Experts are hopeful the Omicron crisis is starting to fizzle out naturally after spiralling to ‘unbelievable’ levels last month.
But there are concerns that the promising trajectory may reverse in the coming days because of schools returning from the Christmas holidays, with infections then spreading back up through the age groups like seen in previous waves.
Despite the confusion over exactly where the country finds itself on the epidemic curve, ministers are facing calls to announce how they intend to live with the virus following almost two years of a never-ending cycle of crippling restrictions.
Deaths have barely risen in England’s most recent wave, and are currently tracking at about half the level of a bad flu year, analysis suggests. The number of critically ill patients in hospital is still flat, despite Omicron first starting to spiral out of control a month ago.
‘We want to keep this under review, make sure we have the right approach, you know we moved from 10 to seven. But what we’re absolutely not doing is prejudging anything.’
A string of other senior ministers are also pushing for the move, including Mr Javid and Chancellor Rishi Sunak.
The spokesman was also forced to defend UKHSA boss Jenny Harries, the former deputy chief medical who was awarded a damehood in the New Year honours.
She has come under criticism in the past for defending the decision to ditch testing and contact tracing at the start of the pandemic, which was widely seen as a failure.
Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Dame Maura said she would in favour of shortening the isolation period.
She revealed some schools have been forced to combine classes and cram up to 120 children into school halls because so many staff are off isolating.
She said: ‘Personally, I’d welcome it, because I think the most important thing is there are many staff that actually have no symptoms, many children that have no symptoms, and I think it’s important to get staff back as quickly as possible.’
It comes after a survey by the NASUWT teaching union found that nearly half of teachers have been forced to cover for colleagues who were off work due to coronavirus as remote learning hit its highest level since lockdown.
Dame Maura told Today that ‘one of the biggest challenges’ currently for schools is ‘effective supply cover’.
She added: ‘I think the most important thing we have to remember is that while it’s significant for all children, it’s particularly significant for those students that are actually facing exams, and many of them have had two, two and a half years, of disruption and to then have a lack of quality teaching is actually greater disruption for them.’
On Monday, Mr Johnson said ministers were considering reducing the self-isolation period from seven to five days for fully vaccinated people who test positive for Covid, with the Health Secretary reportedly backing such a move.
A number of Tory MPs have criticised the UKHSA for its misleading advice to ministers about the isolation rules.
Former Conservative leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith said: ‘This is yet another example of the bad, exaggerated advice that ministers have been receiving and that has been holding the country back.
‘The difference between five and seven days is critical to maintaining services in hospitals, schools and the economy.’
Former Cabinet minister David Davis said: ‘This demonstrates why scientific advisers have to be very careful about basing their advice on facts rather than pessimistic guesswork.
‘If one of our aims is to protect the health service, sending people home for an unnecessary length of time does not help patients or other health service workers.
‘We need to see the hard data that justifies this, on a more established basis than their inaccurate assertions for the last few weeks.’
Tory MP Andrew Bridgen called for an apology, adding: ‘This mistake has put the NHS and critical industries under severe pressure. It is the sort of basic information which politicians and the British public and employers would expect them to get right.’
On the potential reduction to the self-isolation period, the Prime Minister’s spokesman said: ‘If it is possible to go further, we’d want to act quickly but it needs to be based on the latest evidence and that work is still ongoing.
‘We certainly haven’t received any further updated advice.’