Covid Scotland: Self-isolation period cut to seven days and scrapped for vaccinated close contacts
Businesses have welcomed a cut to self-isolation requirements in Scotland, amid widespread staff absences and new figures estimating one in 20 people had Covid in the last week of December.
It comes as health boards warned of “extreme” pressures and NHS staff absences reached the highest levels since June 2020.
The requirement to self-isolate has been cut from ten days to seven for people with Covid and scrapped for close contacts who are fully vaccinated, Nicola Sturgeon announced in a move to align Scotland’s position with other UK nations.
Business leaders welcomed the change, but called for restrictions on large gatherings and hospitality, which the First Minister said will likely continue until January 17, to be scrapped after that date.
The changes around self-isolation requirements have also been welcomed by figures in the health and care sector, which despite some exemptions has faced increased staff absences.
Some 5,482 NHS staff were recorded as absent in the week to January 4 – the highest figure since the beginning of June 2020.
Some 1,223 people were in hospital with Covid on Wednesday, while 16,103 new cases were reported.
Analysis of the distinction between patients admitted to hospital because of the virus and those testing positive during treatment for something else is set to be published on Friday, amid calls from opposition parties for clear messaging from the Scottish Government.
The number of people in hospital with the Omicron variant of Covid has reached 154, with three in intensive care. These figures depend on lengthy genomic sequencing so are likely to be an underestimate of the true number.
Those who test positive for Covid will now have the option to end their self-isolation after seven days, providing they do not have a fever and record two negative lateral flow tests, on days six and seven.
The self-isolation requirement for close contacts of positive cases has been removed for children and adults who have received three vaccine doses. Instead these contacts, including household contacts, will be asked to take a lateral flow test every day for seven days.
Those who test positive for Covid by lateral flow test will also no longer be required to confirm this by PCR.
All changes will come into effect from midnight.
Ms Sturgeon announced no further restrictions, but said the existing limits on large gatherings and hospitality will remain in force and are expected to do so until January 17.
In light of Omicron’s high transmissibility and the likelihood the Covid-19 pandemic will continue for some time to come, the Scottish Government must “adapt” its approach to restrictions, Ms Sturgeon said.
"With a variant as infectious as Omicron, the kind of protections that are still possible within our financial resources and without causing greater harm in other ways – while still very important at this stage – won’t control transmission to the same extent as they would have with other variants,” she said.
Ms Sturgeon added: “Let me be clear this does not, in my view, mean giving up trying to control it at all. The impact of Covid on individual health and on our collective wellbeing is too significant for that.
“But it does mean seeking ways of doing so that are more proportionate and sustainable and less restrictive."
Business leaders welcomed the move, but called for more financial support and an end to current rules around large gatherings and hospitality.
Dr Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said: “These changes should have a positive impact on businesses ability to operate and allow employees to return to work safely, whilst also safeguarding public health.
“Additionally, greater alignment and an enhanced four-nations approach towards testing is a positive step in the right direction and many businesses who were struggling due to staff shortages will now be able to open their doors again.”
But Dr Cameron said an additional £55 million of business support announced by the First Minister was not enough.
"The financial support being made available still falls considerably short of the losses businesses have incurred over the festive period due to the enhanced Omicron restrictions and guidance that remain in place,” she said.
Dr Cameron added: “Scotland’s businesses need to see restrictions lifted as soon as possible and we urge the Scottish Government to go further and faster in their removal as part of the next three-week review.”
Leon Thompson, executive director of UKHospitality, said while reduced isolation requirements were welcome, ongoing restrictions left jobs and livelihoods “hanging in the balance”.
"The ongoing uncertainty on how, or indeed if, sporting and business events can take place over coming weeks and months is now sapping business and consumer confidence further,” he said.
"If the uncertainty around restrictions continues, Easter bookings and trade will suffer too, as holidaymakers from Scotland and the rest of the UK decide to travel elsewhere.”
The Federation of Small Businesses said the rule change would give small employers “an inch more flexibility”.
“At next week’s update, the First Minister must shed more light on the circumstances that would see current restrictions lifted,” said policy chair Andrew McRae.
"If the Omicron-variant has changed the rules of the game, local and independent firms deserve to know what those rules are.”
The Scottish Licensed Trade Association said the new rules would “help relieve the pressure” on staffing issues faced by licensed traders.
“We now hope that the current restrictions in place, including table service and one-metre physical distancing between groups of customers in premises serving alcohol, plus the limits on events which are hugely impacting the late-night industry which has been hit particularly hard since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, will be lifted on January 17,” said managing director Colin Wilkinson.
The Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh labelled the reduced isolation requirement a “sensible” balance of risks.
“Today’s announcement that isolation practices and times will change for people with Covid and their contacts strikes a sensible balance between the need to continue to minimise the spread of a highly infectious and now highly prevalent virus; and the need to ensure that public services and vital parts of our economy are able to operate effectively,” said president Professor Andrew Elder.
"In addition, simplification of the testing process will make it easier for key workers to access all required testing more quickly and increased uniformity of approach across the home nations should also make public messaging and understanding easier.”
Donald Macaskill, chief executive of independent care sector representative Scottish Care, labelled the move “reasonable, timely and proportionate”.
“We all need to continue to follow guidance and exercise real caution or the benefits of the changes will not result in reduced absence of critical frontline staff in social care,” he said.