United Kingdom

Daily Covid testing could be used in workplaces to end 'pingdemic' chaos, top expert says

Professor Tim Peto said the findings 'can be applied to workplace settings'

Workers could be tested for Covid every day to avoid them needing to self-isolate if they come into contact with someone infected with the virus, a top scientist claimed today.

England's 'pingdemic' chaos has led to warnings that supermarkets may be left with empty shelves and lead to the 'most serious' food shortages since WWII. 

But Oxford University researchers say the rules could be replaced with daily swabs in workplaces.

Their trial revealed the scheme was just as effective at preventing outbreaks among children as sending home an entire 'bubble' for ten days whenever someone tested positive. 

Professor Tim Peto, one of the experts behind the study, said the testing approach could be applied to workplace settings. 

If No10 adopted the policy, it would allow millions to return to work and would stop industries from collapsing in the face of quarantine chaos. A record 1.3million self-isolation alerts were sent out across the country last week.

It comes as ministers today revealed 10,000 critical workers will be exempted from self-isolation rules almost immediately after finally waking up to repeated warnings the pingdemic could collapse food supply chains.

Environment Secretary George Eustice revealed staff at around 500 sites including supermarket depots will no longer need to quarantine if they come into contact with a positive Covid case. 

A University of Oxford study shows daily testing for schoolchildren after coming into contact with someone testing positive with Covid is just as safe as self-isolating — and it reduces absences by 39 per cent. Graph shows: The number of schoolchildren absent because of Covid in schools where isolation was enforced (blue) and where daily testing was offered (orange)

The study found there was no difference in the number of people becoming ill at schools where the alternative testing policy was being used (orange lines) compared to those following the normal self isolation policy (blue lines)

The guidance lists 16 sectors: energy, civil nuclear, digital infrastructure, food production and supply, waste, water, veterinary medicines, essential chemicals, essential transport, medicines, medical devices, clinical consumable supplies, emergency services, border control, essential defence and local government

Fury as ministers dash to exempt 10,000 critical workers from self-isolation after FINALLY waking up to threat 'pingdemic' could collapse supply chains and spark 'biggest food shortages since the war'

Ministers today insisted 10,000 critical workers will be exempted from self-isolation rules almost immediately after finally waking up to warnings the 'pingdemic' could collapse food supply chains.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said staff at around 500 sites including supermarket depots will no longer need to quarantine if they come into contact with a positive Covid case.

He stressed that firms will not need to apply to be covered by the 'big' change, amid confusion over the emergency measures being taken by ministers to stop supply chains collapsing. 

Admitting that the government needed to think again after businesses raised the alarm over the sheer scale of absences, he said: 'We will never take risks with our food supply.' The Cabinet minister said the military was 'always on standby', but there were currently no plans to call on them.  

However, Mr Eustice risked the wrath of other sectors that are being hammered by the escalating problems as he made clear there is no prospect of hospitality staff getting the same treatment. And he declined to give a categorical commitment that fully vaccinated people will be let off isolation rules from August 16 as planned.   

The comments came as owners of some of the country's largest food producers including the UK's 'Chicken King' revealed they are at 'crisis point' - with a lack of poultry and milk on supermarket shelves and warnings of the 'most serious food shortages that this country has seen in over 75 years'.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme this morning, Professor Peto said his team's findings could be applied to other settings.

Professor Peto, a professor of medicine at Oxford University, said: 'We're learning an awful lot about the way this is transmitted. 

'Only 2 per cent of our children in contact got the illness, quite a very small number. 

'98 per cent who were in contact didn't, and those sorts of numbers can be applied to workplace settings. 

'You have to be careful when you go from school to work to find out if it's the same or not, but what we learned from schools I think can be applied with care but properly to a workplace settings.'    

Oxford scientists studied more than 220,000 pupils and staff across 201 secondary schools in England from April to June.

They asked half of pupils to follow the current guidance — self-isolating for 10 days after someone they were in contact with tested positive for Covid. 

The others continued going to school, where they were tested every day. 

Just 1.5 per cent of contacts in the 'daily testing' schools ended up having a positive PCR, compared with 1.6 per cent of the other group. 

It means more than 98 per cent of contacts did not get Covid, and suggests daily contact testing may slightly reduce transmission. 

The experts said daily testing was significantly less disruptive to children's education and could reduce days lost to self-isolation by 39 per cent.

NHS Test and Trace said the study was 'trailblazing' for showing daily testing can safely keep pupils in class.   

Dr Susan Hopkins, chief medical adviser for NHS Test and Trace, called the findings 'a major breakthrough'. 

Professor Jonathan Ball, a professor of molecular virology at the University of Nottingham, told the Telegraph the study showed 'unnecessary disruption' could be avoided with daily tests.

He said: 'It is always going to be tricky to define the relative effectiveness of isolation versus testing, as there are a lot of assumptions that need to be made,' he said. 

'That aside, what this study shows is that daily testing rather than isolation of contacts is effective in preventing onward transmission.

'Crucially, it also highlights the unnecessary disruption that isolation rules have had on countless numbers of children. Isolation of contacts is an important weapon in infection control, but it is also crude. Rapid testing circumvents needless isolation, and it should be used more widely.'

Professor Peto said: 'In the school setting, it works, it's safe, and that gives comfort to people who want to work out if there's an easier way to control the transmission than having pingdemics and these rather disruptive waves of controlling the disease.'

The study, backed by the Department of Health and Department for Education, is not yet peer reviewed. 

No10 will drop self-isolation rules for the fully vaccinated from August 19.

But last night the Government announced staff in 16 key sectors will be exempt from today. 

The Times reported the scheme is only expected to help 10,000 people, despite a record 1.3million being sent alerts last week. 

Data shows 618,903 alerts were sent in England and Wales in the week ending July 14, a 17 per cent rise increase on the previous seven days and another record high. The red line show the cumulative number of tracing alerts sent throughout the pandemic, while the blue bars represent the number each week

Infections were rising in England by about 67 per cent on June 30, for example, and at the same time the number of alerts sent to phones rose by 63 per cent. Even earlier this month 'pings' were rising in line with cases – infections rose by 48 per cent on July 7 while alerts jumped by 46 per cent. But by July 14, cases across England were rising at twice the rate of alerts - with a 34 per cent increase in infections compared to the 17 per cent rise in pings that reached phones

There are fears that as the epidemic continues to grow and isolation rules aren't relaxed for double-jabbed Britons, that it is creating a lockdown by stealth. More than 1.2million adults were told to self-isolate last week. The blue bars show the number of 'pings' sent by the NHS app each week, the red bars show the number of people contacted by Test and Trace call handlers, while the yellow bars show the number of people who tested positive for Covid

Updated guidance said 'in the small number of situations where the self-isolation of close contacts would result in serious disruption to critical services, a limited number of named workers may be able to leave self-isolation under specific controls for the purpose of undertaking critical work only'.

The policy only applies to named workers if their employer has received a letter from the relevant government department. 'This is not a blanket exemption for all workers in a sector,' the guidance said. 

Ministers have also announced that priority testing sites will be set up at workplaces that supply food - 500 of which are set to be operational within the next week. 

The new process to allow critical workers to carry on with their jobs even if identified as a contact of a coronavirus case is intended to run until August 16, when a wider relaxation for fully vaccinated contacts is set to take effect.   

But speaking on the Tody programme this morning, SAGE expert Sir Jeremy Farrar called for people to keep wearing face masks and avoid mixing in groups to drive down the 'pingdemic'.

Sir Farrar, who is also the director of the Wellcome Trust, said: 'The way to prevent the so-called 'pingdemic' is to drive down transmission.

'If we have lower transmission in this country by continuing to wear masks and avoiding poorly-ventilated indoor settings as much as we can until as much as the population is vaccinated as possible, that will drive down transmission and also help reduce the number of people having to isolate.'

Asked if sticking to masks and ventilation would be enough, he added: 'Lockdowns are extreme, we've moved on from lockdowns, but lockdowns are everything thrown at it together and they do drive down transmission.

'We're not in that world now but there are things we can still do, wearing masks, yes, it makes a difference, it doesn't affect me or protect me but it makes sure that if I was infected I didn't pass it on to someone who was vulnerable.

'Avoiding poorly-ventilated settings, particularly indoors, multiple mixing of households, these are all some of the biggest risks, plus getting as many people vaccinated as possible.'

 In total, when children sent home to isolate from school are included, there were up to 1.8million people told to quarantine last week - or 3 per cent of the entire population. However, some people pinged by the app would have also been contacted by Test and Trace. And some of the people who tested positive may have also been pinged or told to self-isolate 

The policy proved just as effective at preventing outbreaks as sending home an entire 'bubble' for ten days when someone tested positive (file photo)

When do I have to self-isolate?

MailOnline has looked into the legal guidance behind whether someone has to self-isolate if they are Covid positive, or told to by the app or Test and Trace.

Do I have to self-isolate if I test positive?

Official rules say someone who has tested positive for the virus must self-isolate for ten days from the onset of symptoms.

Anyone they live with must also self-isolate for ten days. 

Britons found breaking these rules could face a fine of £1,000 for the first offence.

This rises to £10,000 for people who repeatedly refuse to self-isolate after testing positive. 

Do I have to self-isolate if I get 'pinged' by the app?

Britons who are 'pinged' by the NHS contact tracing app do not have to self-isolate.

Official regulations state those who only receive an alert on their phones are not legally bound to stay at home.

Professor Lilian Edwards, a top lawyer who advised the Government on the app, said today people do not have to follow notifications from the software.

'I think what's getting lost in the traffic here is that you are not breaking the law if you do not self-isolate having been pinged by the app,' she told the BBC's World at One.

'You are only breaking the law if you are rung up by a manual contact tracer.

'Therefore, there is room there for discretion both from managers in the workplace and from workers as to whether they think they are a risk.'

If someone who received a notification from the app then speaks to a person from NHS test and trace they are required to self-isolate. 

Do I have to self-isolate if test and trace contacts me?

Britons who are contacted by test and trace must self-isolate at home for ten days, according to guidance.

They must isolate for ten days regardless of whether they have symptoms or get a negative test.

People they live with will also be required to self-isolate for ten days.

If anyone in the household starts to suffer symptoms of the virus, the self-isolation period is reset to ten days. 

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