Health and social care secretary Sajid Javid told the House of Commons on 13 January that the government had reviewed the isolation period for positive cases.
'UK Health Security Agency data shows around two thirds of positive cases are no longer infectious by the end of day five,' he said. 'We want to use the testing capacity we have built up to help them leave isolation safely.'
He said the government had decided to reduce the minimum self isolation period in England to five days - a month after a reduction from a minimum of 10 to seven days. People who return two negative lateral flow tests 24 hours apart will now be able to leave isolation from the start of day six.
Responding to the announcement, shadow health and social care secretary Wes Streeting said: 'Workforce shortages are one of the biggest challenges facing the NHS and the wider economy. This measure will help people get back to work faster and safer.'
NHS Confederation chief executive Matthew Taylor backed the change as a 'pragmatic move' that could ease pressure on the health and care workforce.
The changes come at a time when GP leaders have warned that the general practice workforce has been 'shredded' by absences linked to COVID-19. The RCGP warned just after Christmas that a shapshot poll it carried out had found 95% of practices warning that levels of staff off sick were worse than usual. The college poll found that around 14% of clinical staff and 17% of all staff were off sick.
Mr Taylor said: 'We called for consideration to be given to reducing the self-isolation period in England as one way of alleviating the NHS staffing crisis if it could be backed by the appropriate evidence and so, we are glad the government has acted quickly.
'This is a pragmatic move which leaders will welcome if it can mean more health and care workers who are well enough can return to the frontline, providing it does not significantly add to the risk of the virus spreading.
'The number of people in hospital is still high, with admissions still rising in the North of England and alongside that, the NHS faces a huge care backlog and significant vacancies. Leaders are grateful for the military support that has been made available to help deliver hospital services as well as the three-month agreement with the independent sector but we are certainly not out of the woods yet.'