The Education Secretary says reducing the Covid isolation period from seven to five days would be "helpful", ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen reports
Nadhim Zahawi has become the first government Minister to publicly support the reduction of the Covid isolation period from seven to five days, which he said would be “more helpful”.
Speaking to The Sunday Times, the Education Secretary said: “The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) have said they want to review it, so we will stick to seven days but if they review it and say they will bring it down to five days that is even better for me, it’s even more helpful.”
Mr Zahawi also told the paper he believes the UK is “witnessing the transition of the virus from pandemic to endemic”.
He told ITV News the reduction would help the education and health sectors deal with staff absenteeism, and reduce staff shortages, but added it was up to the UKHSA whether it's "the right thing to do".
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Speaking to Sky's Trevor Philips on Sunday, he said: “But I would absolutely be driven by advice from the experts, the scientists, on whether we should move to five days from seven days. What you don’t want is to create the wrong outcome by higher levels of infection.”
He 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.”
However Scottish Health Secretary Humza Yousaf has said Scotland is not considering further reducing its quarantine period.
Mr Yousaf told BBC Breakfast it had been risky for Scotland to reduce its isolation period from 10 days to seven - Nicola Sturgeon announced the reduction in days on Wednesday.
The UKHSA, who are reviewing any changes to the self-isolation period, say on day 6 between 10% and 30% of people are still infectious, ITV News Political Correspondent Carl Dinnen reports
“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.”
Mr Yousaf said on the issue of a further reduction, his government were “intending to keep that matter under review, but we’re not contemplating at this stage going from seven days to five”.
“We’ve literally just made the change from 10 days to seven days. I think it’d be sensible to see the impact and the effect of that. But, clearly, we’re always guided by the science,” he added.
The US recently changed it guidance and halved the self-isolation period cut from 10 to five days for asymptomatic sufferers - the isolation period starts from the day of the positive test.
It also follows reports that universal free lateral flow tests may be scaled back. The Sunday Times reported they could be limited to high-risk settings – such as care homes, hospitals and schools – and to people with symptoms.
An announcement could come within weeks and include a scaling back of the NHS Test and Trace system, the paper said.
However Mr Zahawi disputed the reports and said he was "puzzled" by them as there are currently no plans to stop lateral flow tests being free.
The rapid tests were made available to everyone in England, crucially including those without symptoms, in April.
Scotland First Minister Nicola Sturgeon warned the move would be “utterly wrongheaded”, while Labour said it would be the “wrong decision at the wrong time” while cases are so high.
The way to keep our economy open and to avoid restrictions is to have that testing available
Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves told ITV News: "I am worried that the government is looking to get rid of those free lateral flow tests now when cases are still high and the truth is, the way to keep our economy open and to avoid restrictions is to have that testing available.
"The idea when we're facing a cost of living crisis to then pass on more cost to people, that is the wrong policy, at the wrong time and if the government go ahead with that, as has been suggested today, we would vote against that."
Mr Zahawi's comments on the self-isolation period come after parents were urged to book jabs for their children as official Covid deaths passed 150,000 in the UK.
Around half a million vaccination appointments are being made available online in England for the 12 to 15-year-olds during January, a senior doctor has said – with slots available at around 500 walk-in sites and 300 centres.
With the official Covid death total reached 150,057, the UK is the seventh country to pass the milestone – following the US, Brazil, India, Russia, Mexico and Peru.