The period of isolation people are forced to endure after coming into contact with those who have tested positive for Covid-19 could be halved to a week, under plans being considered by Downing Street.
The Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, confirmed on Sunday that officials were looking at cutting the 14-day isolation time but stressed no decision had been taken.
It comes after reports suggested that Boris Johnson’s Covid taskforce was examining the case for dropping the required isolation to seven days amid fears over poor compliance with the legal requirement.
Figures for NHS test and trace, headed by the Tory peer Dido Harding, last week hit a record low with just 59.6% of close contacts of people who tested positive for Covid-19 in England reached through the system.
In a stinging attack, Sir Bernard Jenkin, the Tory chair of the Commons liaison committee, penned a comment piece for the Sunday Telegraph suggesting: “Exhausted leaders on the government frontline, like Dido Harding, could be given a well-earned break.”
People who have tested positive or have symptoms of Covid-19 have to isolate for at least 10 days, while those they live with or others who have come into close contact with them must stay at home for two weeks when told to do so by test and trace.
But a No 10 source told the Sunday Telegraph that the review of the 14-day self-isolation period was prompted by growing concerns about insufficient numbers of people following the rules. “Compliance is not as high as we would like and self-isolation is key if we are going to beat the virus,” the source said.
The paper said officials were looking at cutting isolation requirements to between seven and 10 days. Separately, the Sunday Times reported that one week was the preferred isolation period.
Asked about the reports, Lewis told the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday: “There’s no decision. I’m not here to make an announcement this morning. The teams are looking at this, as we’re learning more about the virus, as we’re learning more about how we can manage and live within the virus – obviously we’re always assessing these things – but any final decision on this will be led by the science and we’re not in a position to make a decision on that just yet.”
Pressed on what the case would be for cutting the time, Lewis replied: “We would be looking at whether we can assess that incubation period of the virus, how people are reacting once they know if they’ve got the virus and making sure people understand what the guidance is so that they are isolating for the right period of time to protect those in the community around them.
“Now, we’ve always assessed that to be around 14 days, obviously 10 days if you’ve got the virus, but 14 days if you live with somebody or have been close contact with somebody with the virus, and it’s just whether the science is able to allow us to narrow that a bit.”
Speaking separately to Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Lewis ruled out a suggestion reported in the Sunday Times that company bosses and hedge fund managers flying into the UK might be exempt from 14-day quarantine rules in an attempt to promote “global Britain”. “Any changes that are made will apply to everybody,” Lewis said.
He also defended Harding, saying: “What Dido has done is put together and drive forward a team that has come on so much in the last few months.
“We want to see it improve, we want to see it grow and get better and better. That’s how we fight this virus. But actually I think Dido and the team have done a very good job to get to where we are.”