From today, fully vaccinated frontline NHS and social care staff in England who have been told to self-isolate will be permitted to attend work in 'exceptional circumstances' - and will be asked to take continuous COVID-19 tests.
This will include staff who have been contacted as a close contact of a case of COVID-19 by NHS Test and Trace, or advised to self-isolate by the NHS COVID-19 app.
The move follows warnings from GPs that large numbers of staff are having to self-isolate due to close contact with positive cases - reducing their capacity to run services.
Staff returning to work following a negative PCR test will have to take daily lateral flow tests for a minimum of seven days, and up to 10 days or completion of the identified self-isolation period.
But health leaders are divided about the rule changes, saying that staff do not want to expose their patients and colleagues to an increased risk of catching the virus.
The updated rules state that the staff member should undertake a PCR test and should self-isolate until they receive the result. They should only attend work if they test negative and should not work with clinically vulnerable patients.
If the staff member develops any COVID-19 symptoms, they should stay at home and immediately arrange a PCR test. Staff who are permitted to attend work will remain under a legal duty to self-isolate as a close contact when not at work, according to the guidance.
GPonline understands that staff absences through COVID-19 contacts were becoming a problem for GP surgeries, with Surrey GP Dr Dave Triska admitting half of his clinical team were off. Other GPs have expressed similar concerns on Twitter.
Practice absences due to covid isolations are crippling us at the moment. Wave 4 is well and truly here. This time with young families and parents affected we are really feeling the pinch— Dr Dave Triska (@dave_dlt) July 14, 2021
Well, the Delta variant has hit my double vaccinated GP surgery like the inevitable dose of salts it is. Two off now with partners confirmed positive. Four of us have been working in the same office as these two all week. We can’t all go home though. Nightmare.— Claire Cooper (@tiscooperwoman) July 16, 2021
UK health security agency chief executive, Jenny Harries, said: ‘With the number of cases continuing to rise, it is imperative that we do everything we can to manage this virus and support our NHS and social care services under the strain of increased demand and sustained pressure.
‘We have provided specific guidance to NHS and social care settings for circumstances where there is a significant risk to health or safety resulting from staff absence or a critical service cannot run.
‘This measure only applies to double vaccinated staff, who will only be able to attend work after testing negative on PCR and daily lateral flow tests, and following a risk assessment and the supervision of the health service.’
Danny Mortimer, chief executive of NHS Employers and deputy chief executive of the NHS Confederation, said: ‘The NHS needs all the support it can get over the summer as it responds to the dual challenge of rising cases of coronavirus alongside rising demand for its broader services.
'However, health leaders are divided on this particular issue of whether their staff who are double jabbed should be allowed to swap the need for self-isolation with increased testing.
‘On the one hand, they are worried about their capacity to support patients safely and quickly... the last thing they would want to do is expose their patients and colleagues to an increased risk of catching the virus, so the need for local review and discretion here is important.’
More than 51,870 new COVID-19 cases were recorded in the UK on 16 July, the highest figure in more than six months. Chief medical officer Professor Chris Whitty has warned that hospitalisations are doubling every three weeks and could hit ‘scary numbers’ soon.