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Calls to cut self-isolation to five days to counter ‘mounting’ NHS staff absences

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By Jess Hacker
6 January 2022

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The Government should review the self-isolation period to see if it could be cut to five days, in line with some other countries, to reduce the level of NHS staff absence, the NHS Confederation has suggested.

Today’s recommendation (6 January) comes as part of a call for ‘urgent steps’ to avoid a ‘staffing crisis’ in light of the Omicron variant.

Self-isolation rules in England currently require isolation for 10 days, or seven days following two negative lateral flow tests (LFTs) taken 24 hours apart.

The NHS Confederation called for the Government to keep this under review to see if it is ‘feasible’ to halve the 10-day period, as has been done in the US and in France.

This measure should only be taken if the ‘evidence is clear’ that is ‘poses no risk to patients’, it clarified.

It said: ‘We would not want a reduction to be counterproductive but if the isolation period could be safely shortened, this would significantly help to reduce the level of staff absence over the rest of the winter.’

The recommendation comes amid both a staffing crisis and testing shortage in general practice and the NHS as a hole.

Health secretary Sajid Javid this week admitted the supply of LFTs is needing to be ‘constrained’ in the first two weeks of January due to increasing demand, with NHS England telling practices they can access a ‘significant contingency supply’ from their regional testing lead.

More than 26,000 NHS staff were absent due to Covid-19 sickness or self-isolation over the Christmas period.

Give NHS staff priority testing

The Confederation also claimed that the Government’s latest Covid measures ‘do not go far enough’, particularly its commitment to ensuring 100,000 critical workers across a ‘variety of industries’ will get direct access to daily LFTs from 10 January.

It said that given the shortage of supply for LFTs and PCR tests, ‘all key workers, including NHS and social care staff, should be given priority access to tests’.

Otherwise, the significant staff shortages already clear ‘will be made worse’, with more staff having to self-isolate for longer than potentially necessary, it warned.

Matthew Taylor, chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said the country ‘should not be in this position two years into the pandemic’.

The Confederation also called for:

  • Medical students and trainees to be redeployed into healthcare settings to account for mounting staff absences
  • Regulators and national leads to acknowledge that clinical tasks might need to be allocated in ways which would not normally be recognised as best practice
  • The Government to issue clearer instructions for cases where hospitals struggle to discharge patients into other settings
  • Clear communication with the public that all parts of the NHS, including GP practices, are under pressure.

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