Self-isolation exemption for NHS staff 'desperate and potentially unsafe', BMA warns

Exempting NHS staff from self-isolation to keep them in work is a ‘desperate and potentially unsafe policy’, the BMA has warned, as it criticised the government’s handling of spiralling COVID-19 cases.

Earlier this week, the government announced that GP practice staff who have been double vaccinated against COVID-19 will not have to self-isolate and can attend work after returning a negative PCR test.

Guidance issued by the government clarified that returning staff must take daily lateral flow tests - in some cases for as long as 10 days - after the initial PCR test, and should only return to work under ‘exceptional circumstances’.

However, the BMA has criticised these plans arguing that they risk the health of patients and create unnecessary worry among staff that they might catch the virus from their own colleagues.

Self-isolation exemption

Should the government continue with the plans, the BMA has said that the scheme must be ‘completely voluntary', and that staff should not be penalised for choosing to continue to self-isolate.

Coronavirus cases in the UK have shot up in recent weeks, with more than 325,000 new infections reported in the week to 22 July. With cases on the rise, GP practices have been reporting increased staff absences through self-isolation.

One family doctor told GPonline that his clinical workforce had been ‘decimated’ by requirements to self-isolate as 10 people were forced off of work. But the BMA argued the government's return to work scheme was not the answer for struggling practice teams.

BMA chair Dr Chaand Nagpaul said: ‘Exempting healthcare staff from self-isolation to get them back to work is a desperate and potentially unsafe policy that does not address the root problem.

Patient safety

‘The safety of patients and staff must be paramount. People go to see healthcare professionals in order to get better, not to risk getting infected, and staff should not fear transmission of the virus from their own colleagues.

‘If the government decides to stick with its current strategy, any return to work must be in exceptional circumstances, pending the results of the current pilots on the safety of this approach - and must be entirely voluntary; staff who want to self-isolate must not be penalised in any way for doing so.’

He added: ‘Ultimately, the reality that the NHS and key services are suffering staff shortages due to self-isolation is a clear sign that the government must now put into action more stringent infection control measures to decisively  bring down the spiralling spread of this virus, rather than its current approach of letting it run loose amongst citizens.’

The BMA criticised the government's decision to press ahead with relaxing COVID-19 restrictions despite rising cases and hospitalisations - along with 'mixed messaging' over masks.

Announcing the changes earlier this week, health and social care secretary Sajid Javid said: 'As we learn to live with this virus, it’s important that we ensure frontline staff can keep providing the best possible care and support to people up and down the country.

'The government has backed healthcare services at every turn through this global pandemic and these new rules will fortify our collective defences against this awful virus, by allowing fully vaccinated frontline NHS and social care staff to continue to work when needed.'

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