20,000 people a day ignoring instructions to self-isolate

Baroness Dido Harding, interim head of the National Institute for Health Protection, insisted there were “a lot of caveats” to this figure but said internal research has shown that between 40 per cent and 20 per cent of close contacts were failing to self-isolate.

An estimated 20,000 people a day – possibly more – are not isolating when contacted by Test and Trace, MPs have been told.

Said told the Commons Science and Technology Committee there were a number of reasons as to why members of the public weren’t following orders to self-isolate.

Baroness Harding explained that a lack of communication and understanding played a key role, with people “not being really clear what they should or shouldn’t do”.

“The clearer and simpler the guidance, the easier is it for people to follow it,” she said.

She also pointed to the practical issues of self-isolation, especially if people don’t “have enough food in the fridge”, need to pick up medicines or have certain caring responsibilities.

“Across the country, local authorities have been doing some fantastic work in providing practical support, either directly or through voluntary groups and other third-sector providers,” the health chief said.

The financial strains of self-isolation, which can limit income and earnings for those individuals in insecure jobs, was outlined as another factor.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats said greater financial support is needed for the country’s most deprived communities, where there is an overrepresentation of poorly-paid key workers who have been unable to self-isolate and stay at home during lockdown, leaving them more vulnerable to Covid-19.

When questioned over whether the government should offer salary replacements to help people isolate, Baroness Harding said it was key that any “financial incentives” in place “genuinely drives the right behaviour, rather than any unforeseen consequences”.

She said the mental toll of self-isolation posed another “really difficult” challenge,  adding there is “undoubtedly more we can do” to help people cope.

Estimating how many people were failing to isolate when asked to do, Baroness Harding said: “Let’s take last week’s total number of cases and contacts, circa 700,000 people so circa 100,000 people a day, so circa 20,000 people a day would not be coming into contact.”

Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who led the line of questioning, said it was “a huge number of people every single day who could be passing on the virus”.

“Thousands of people every day is enough to restart the pandemic,” he added.

Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth MP, the shadow health secretary, said the figures confirm “our repeated warnings that without decent sick pay and support we won’t break chains of transmission.

“With worrying identification of the South African variant in the community and the E484K mutation in the infectious Kent variant it’s now more urgent than ever that this hole in our defences is fixed.”

Baroness Harding warned that it was likely that even more people, many of whom won’t have been picked up by Test and Trace, are potentially helping to fuel the spread of Covid-19

“Could I add a slight complexity to your calculation which actually might well make your number go up a bit, which is that’s the proportion that we know about,” she told the committee.

“My biggest concern about people not isolating is not actually the 20 per cent of people, let’s say, who are not following that instruction.”

She said her biggest concern is the people who feel ill but do not come forward for testing.

Baroness Harding also claimed that the emergence of mutations and new coronavirus variants was something that “none of us were able to predict” – despite the UK establishing a genomics surveillance network last spring to track the evolution of Sars-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.

An Academy of Medical Royal Colleges report published last July also raised concerns that mutation potential could impact a winter resurgence of the virus.

When asked what the implications of the UK variant are on testing and tracing, Baroness Harding said: “The new variant, which is now endemic and accounts for, I think, more than 70 per cent of cases across the country, I think has broad implications, not just for NHS Test and Trace, but for the whole country, the whole world’s fight against Covid.

“It means that we all have to keep our distance more rigorously, more hand washing, more face-mask wearing.

“It also means that speeding up our end-to-end Test and Trace journey becomes more imperative.

“Also, as I think I said earlier, finding more of the positive cases.”

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