Health Minister Ed Argar said the government was doing “what is responsible and sensible” by asking the public sector to prepare for a worst-case scenario of up to a quarter of its workforce.
The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) warned that shortening the Covid-19 isolation time to five days would be “counterproductive” and could actually exacerbate staff shortages.
As things stand, people who receive negative results for lateral flow on the sixth and seventh day of their self-isolation phase – with tests every 24 hours – no longer have to stay indoors for a full 10 days.
There were calls for this period to be further reduced to five days.
But the UKHSA said on a blog posted on Saturday that reducing the quarantine time beyond the current seven-day minimum would be “counterproductive”.
“In some settings, such as hospitals, staffing shortages could become even worse as more people become infected,” it said.
This is because public sector executives have been asked to prepare for a worst-case scenario of up to a quarter of employees as the coronavirus continues to spread across the country.
The cabinet office said on Saturday that the disruptions caused by Omicron had so far been controlled in “most parts of the public sector”.
However, it is said that executives were asked to test plans against absenteeism rates of 10%, 20% and 25% of the workforce.
Mr Argar said this was a “responsible” move by the government.
When asked for the advice on Times Radio, he said, “What you mean is that the government is doing responsible and sensible things to prepare for a range of eventualities and to ensure that they take into account all possible contingencies, even those on very high end of the scale. “
When asked if such absenteeism rates are likely to occur, Mr Argar said, “I think we are modeling a number of scenarios down to what we think are very unlikely, but you do it anyway because responsible government does when it does she prepares herself for all eventualities. “
On their blog, the UKHSA said, “Our current assessment is that reducing the isolation period beyond the current seven days (including the end of the isolation test) would be counterproductive. In some environments, such as hospitals, staff shortages could even worsen if more people were infected as a result.
“We will of course keep this position in mind as evidence builds and the government monitors the impact of isolation policies on workforce in critical sectors.
“In particular, our assessment can change if we learn more and more about the functions of the Omicron variant compared to, for example, the Delta variant.”
Given the prospect of reducing the isolation period to five days, Mr Argar said the government has not yet received any scientific advice on the matter.
He told Times Radio, “The clinical or scientific advice we have is to move it from 10, as we did, to seven days. We have not received any scientific advice that it should be lower and we will follow the scientific advice.
“I can fully understand trusts and others who want to use all possible levers to manage and reduce this staff shortage, but in something like this during the self-isolation period … advice to cut that at this point.”
Chris Hopson, the executive director of NHS Providers, which represents health trusts, previously said a decision to cut the period from seven to five days was a “risk judgment” that the government would have to make.
In a Twitter thread on Thursday, Mr Hopson said the staff absenteeism from Covid-19 “is now clearly having a significant impact” on the entire economy and parts of the healthcare sector.
He added: “As staff absenteeism and the risk to quality of care / patient safety (sic) increase, the pressure to change isolation time will inevitably increase.”
Sir Frank Atherton, the Chief Medical Officer of Wales, suggested that “anyone with a cold” should stay home to contain the spread of the virus.
He told Times Radio, “I would say that anyone who has a cold or symptoms of a cold – a runny nose, cough, sneeze, is really appropriate for you to get on a train, plane, or bus? You know, stay at home, get better. “
Meanwhile, shadow health minister Wes Streeting said the government had to “pull itself together” over the range of Covid tests.
He told Sky News, “The government needs to band together on the delivery of tests.
“And I think the Minister of Health needs to explain why he only told me three weeks ago in the House of Commons that the availability of tests was not a problem. And yet it is so clear now. “