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Top UK health officials call for stricter Covid isolation and testing rules

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Yui Mok/PA</span>
Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Exclusive: Health and Security Agency advice comes amid concerns that plan B measures will not stop spread of Omicron


Senior health officials have drawn up advice saying the UK should bring back stricter isolation and testing rules for contacts of Covid cases, amid concerns that triggering plan B is not enough to stop the spread of Omicron.

Top officials at the UK Health and Security Agency (UKHSA) have given three different options to help contain the threat, which at the strictest end would mean all contacts of Covid cases being asked to isolate again regardless of age or vaccination status. Other options would be asking contacts of positive Covid tests to isolate until a PCR test result, with subsequent daily lateral flows, or requiring the contacts to take daily lateral flows. They give further advice in favour of a return to working from home and an extension of mandatory mask wearing.

Boris Johnson is expected to trigger plan B later on Wednesday, with working from home expected to become mandatory and the possible introduction of vaccine passports. The decision is due to be taken after a meeting of “the quad” – Johnson, Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javid and Steve Barclay – and a further gathering of the Covid-O operations committee, after they were briefed there were early indications that Omicron is more transmissible than Delta, and multiple experts warned that the new strain could be the dominant variant within a month.

Related: What new Covid restrictions might be imminent in England?

However, some top advisers at UKHSA believe even more restrictions are necessary. The major worry is that Omicron could be so transmissible that it could lead to a major wave of Covid, putting pressure on the NHS, even if it does not cause more serious symptoms.

The number of Omicron cases throughout the UK rose by 107 to 437 on Wednesday, but the total is likely to be significantly higher, as confirmation by genomic sequencing can take up to a week and there are significant gaps in testing for a key marker of the variant, called the S-gene dropout. Adding to concerns, scientists say they have identified a “stealth” version of Omicron, which cannot be distinguished from other variants using that indicator.

Nicola Sturgeon revealed on Tuesday that about 4% of Covid-19 cases in Scotland were likely to be the new Omicron variant, with that figure “steadily rising”. That translates to about 122 new cases a day with the S-gene dropout marker in Scotland, although only 99 cases overall have been confirmed with genomic sequencing.

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“Our estimate at this stage is that the doubling time for Omicron cases may be as short as two to three days, and that the R number associated with the new variant may be well over 2,” Sturgeon said. Contact tracing is also being enhanced in Scotland, with household contacts of close contacts of positive cases told to test and isolate.

With concern rising about the rapid rise of Omicron, advice from UKHSA officials about stricter testing and isolation advice for contacts of Covid cases has gone to the “silver” committee, chaired by the chief medical officer, and the next step would be submission to “gold” level among ministers and top officials or Covid-O committee of cabinet ministers.

The advice underlines the seriousness with which UKHSA is taking Omicron. Dr Jenny Harries, who leads the government agency, suggested last week that people should think about reducing social contact, such as Christmas parties, but this was rejected by No 10 and other ministers.

The UKHSA advice, detailing the three options for contacts of Covid cases, is likely to be controversial among Tory backbenchers, many of whom were opposed to the so-called pingdemic, when people were asked to isolate without symptoms. Conservative MPs are also warning that people may be unwilling to abide by the government’s advice after a leaked video showed No 10 aides laughing and joking about having held a Christmas party during Covid restrictions last year.

On Tuesday, Johnson’s spokesperson said that the next contingency step remained the potential imposition of the so-called plan B, which would introduce vaccine certification and instructions to work from home where possible. But he also maintained the line that the government was “encouraging businesses to bring back people into the office, in line with the guidance”.

While the government would “want to make sure that parliament has its say” on any new rules, the spokesperson said, ministers had the existing powers to impose plan B restrictions unilaterally if they were needed.

Johnson stressed to his cabinet on Tuesday that strengthening the booster campaign and reaching unvaccinated people was the government’s main tool against Covid.

However, there are some concerns that the rate of booster jabs has faltered, with under-40s still waiting for the programme to be expanded to them from 13 December.

The government has also brought in new travel restrictions, including bans from some African countries, pre-departure PCR tests and day two PCR tests for new arrivals.

The UKHSA was approached for comment on Wednesday morning and no response has been received.

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