Government officials are examining whether fully vaccinated NHS workers could be allowed to forgo self-isolation in order to curb a healthcare staffing crisis amid a rapid spread of Covid infections.
Downing Street said on Friday it was considering whether ending the requirement to self-isolate if “pinged” by the NHS Covid app could be brought forward for NHS staff. The requirement is due to end for all fully vaccinated individuals on 16 August.
It comes amid rising infections in the UK, which are in turn leading to a rise in people being told to self-isolate. This is expected to intensify after England’s final unlocking phase on 19 July, when most restrictions end, including mask requirements.
A further 35,707 cases were reported in the UK on Friday, the highest daily rise since 22 January, as Delta variant cases rose by a third in the past week. The latest contact-tracing figures showed that the number of exposure alerts sent to users of the app in England soared by more than 60% in a week.
Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, warned on Thursday that staffing levels were being hit because of workers self-isolating. The prime minister’s official spokesperson confirmed on Friday that a specific exemption for NHS staff was being looked at ahead of 19 July.
Prof Helen Stokes-Lampard, chair of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, described the prospect as a “sensible next step”. She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday: “We’re delighted to see that the evidence has been reviewed and this is moving forward. This sounds like a sensible next step.
“It will be helpful to healthcare professionals, but we must be ultra vigilant with our infection prevention and control measures, and everybody can play their part with that.”
She said the number of healthcare staff having to take time off work after being pinged by the app “means that the rest of the staff are under increasing pressure”. Stokes-Lampard said the ensuing staffing shortage was leading to “hospitals cancelling operations” and “GP surgeries starting to cut back again on the more routine services that they provided”.
The government has urged people not to delete the Covid app as exposure alerts rise, with the No 10 spokesperson describing it as an “important tool” in breaking the virus’s chain of transmission.
Grant Shapps, the transport secretary, said on Friday that the sensitivity of the app was being kept under constant review and that it could possibly be recalibrated “to be suitable to the circumstances of the time” as increasing numbers are vaccinated.
The proposal has been met with opposition from Labour, with leader Keir Starmer comparing it to “taking the batteries out of the smoke alarm” as Delta cases surge.
Some government ministers are reportedly concerned about the risks of completely scrapping restrictions on 19 July, with Whitehall sources telling the Guardian there were worries about a lack of support for unlocking measures all at once. One source said internal polling showed just 10% of the public support the policy. No 10 denies this.