Government health officials are reportedly set to admit they misinterpreted US guidance on the Covid self-isolation period, at a time when ministers have sought to defend Downing Street’s current policy on the matter.
In a blog last week, the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said that while the isolation period in Britain was counted from the day someone first experienced symptoms, “in the US, the advice is to isolate for five days once you get a positive test, which may be some days after the first symptoms”.
According to The Times, the UKHSA has acknowledged this is not the case and will correct it after the Centres for Disease Control clarified that its isolation period started when symptoms first appeared.
Ministers have used the incorrect information to defend the current UK policy, amid calls from MPs and business to leaders to follow the example of the US in cutting the Covid isolation period from seven to five days.
On Sunday, education secretary Nadhim Zahawi said cutting the isolation period would be “very helpful” in dealing with staffing crises across multiple sectors.
But, citing the UKHSA blog, he added: “We begin our isolation period when people get symptoms, in the US it’s when they test positive, so we have to be careful as to whether we move.”
Prime minister Boris Johnson has admitted there is an “argument to be had about the quarantine period — whether to come down from seven days to five days. The thing to do is to look at the science.”
This marks a change in messaging from last week, when the PM warned that reducing the isolation period could accelerate the spread of Omicron.
The period has already been cut from 10 days to seven, as long as the person in isolation has negative lateral flow test results, and Mr Johnson’s official spokesman said “if it is possible to go further then we will do so”.
The UK Health Security Agency is leading work on the issue along with the Government’s Covid taskforce based in the Cabinet Office.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak is among ministers keen on the economic benefits of reducing the period to five days, according to the Daily Telegraph.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer – who is self-isolating after testing positive for Covid-19 last week – said he would back a reduction in the time period if the evidence supported it.
“If the scientists and the medical experts say that it is safe to reduce the period of self-isolation then I would be inclined to support it,” he said.