ISOLATION? ten days or seven plea falls on deaf SNP and Green ears

By Bill Heaney

Changes in the isolation restrictions  would help to protect our essential services and the economy from grinding to a halt because of staff absences, Tory leader Douglas Ross told First Minister Nicola Sturgeon in the Scottish Parliament today.

England and Wales have reduced the ten-day rule to seven and Mr Ross wants Scotland to do the same.

However, Ms Sturgeon told MSPs: “This is one of the most important issues that the Government is grappling with now and will grapple with over the days to come. In short, the answer to the question is yes, we will make changes just as soon as the public health advice says that the benefits of doing so outweigh the risks of doing so.”

She added: “When we make changes to the self-isolation rules, I want us to try to do that not in a piecemeal way but in an overall, coherent way, so that there are not just changes to the isolation rules for index cases—for those who are infectious—but changes to the rules for contacts, particularly household contacts, who currently have the most stringent isolation rules.”

Nicola Sturgeon, Douglas Ross and Humza Yousaf.  Isolation plea turned down.

Ms Sturgeon said that Humza Yousaf, he Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care, has discussed these issues with public health and clinical advisers literally on a daily basis. Given the very fragile stage that we are at with omicron, the advice right now is that we must be careful that, in easing self-isolation, we do not inadvertently allow further spread of the virus and thereby compound rather than alleviate a problem. However, as soon as the public health advice says that it is safe to do so, we will, of course, do so. I hope that, over the next days—certainly the next couple of weeks—we will start to move to a more proportionate system of self-isolation.

“I recognise the impact on the economy of people becoming infected and having to self-isolate—in fact, I have cited that as one of the reasons why we need to take omicron very seriously. That is why, from today, we have updated guidance on sector-based exemptions for certain industries to try to alleviate the pressure now, while we consider the wider impact on key sectors of our economy.”

Mr Ross persisted: “ We understand the need for caution, but the current rules are not sustainable. The First Minister started to say that it might be days, and she went on to say that it could be weeks. That is troubling, because the rules are leading to a shortage of workers in our vital services, in our transport system and across the public sector right now. The rules are forcing whole families and households to self-isolate for 10 days, even if they have tested negative.

“She accepted that exemptions were necessary and introduced them, and she has just mentioned sector-specific guidance. However, we hear concerns about how long it takes to get those exemptions granted and, indeed, the numbers that have been approved.

“People throughout Scotland cannot afford the situation to continue for weeks, as the First Ministers said. Can we really afford to leave the rules as they are in the interim period when essential services and our economy are already taking a hit?”

The FM was unmoved. She said: “I recognise the importance of the issue, and I ask Douglas Ross to recognise that there is a difficult balance to strike, particularly at the moment. The first and perhaps most fundamental point to make, because it feeds into the process of consideration that we are undertaking, is that it is not the self-isolation rules that are hampering the economy; it is the virus that is hampering the economy.

“The reason why we have tightened the isolation rules for household contacts is that one of the things that we already know about omicron is that it has a much higher attack rate within groups of people who live closely together. Therefore, even more than was the case with previous strains, if one member of a household tests positive or is positive for omicron, the likelihood is that all members of that household, or significant numbers of it, will become positive in the days that follow.

“That is why we need to be cautious. The danger is that, if we move away from that too quickly, all that we will do is spread more infection, and the impact on the economy, which I absolutely recognise, will get greater. We need to be careful about that. I absolutely agree that we should not take too long, but nor should we move too quickly at this critical stage of trying to manage our way through the omicron challenge.

“The point about critical services and the economy is that quite a significant number of exemptions have been approved, but we have moved—the updated guidance has been published today—to a sector-based exemption process. The advice and the consideration that the Government has given is that that is more likely in the short term to alleviate the pressures on the economy in a safe and sustainable way than opening up the self-isolation rules much more widely now.

“Douglas Ross picked up on my use of the words “days” and “weeks”. There is uncertainty about this. I hope that it is soon, but we cannot take a view that we need to base what we do on careful public health considerations and then arbitrarily set a date for doing it. This is something that, even over the Christmas period that is ahead, the Government will be reviewing very carefully. Just as soon as the public health advice says that the benefits outweigh the risks, we will move to a more proportionate system, but in the meantime, through the exemptions scheme, we will work to alleviate the pressure that is being felt on the economy, and particularly on critical services.

Douglas Ross  replied: “The First Minister has just said that she is basing her decisions on public health advice, so let us look at what experts in public health are saying right now.

“The epidemiologist Irene Petersen said yesterday that a move to a seven-day isolation period is a good idea. Clinical advisers to the United Kingdom Government have also endorsed the move.

“Yesterday, we received a game-changing Scottish study on omicron. It is one of the most detailed and promising studies to date, and it says that the evidence shows that omicron is substantially

“less likely to result in COVID-19 hospitalisation than Delta.”

It confirms that the booster dose offers

“substantial additional protection”

and it suggests that the

“reduced severity may also have implications for isolation rules”.

“Does that report, which was published last night, not give us a basis to change the rules now and avoid the risk of threatening the viability of essential services and our economy?”

The First Minister said most people would accept that the clinical advisers that I have to listen to most carefully are the clinical advisers to the Scottish Government — “We are basing our very careful considerations on the advice that we are being given and, of course, that advice will continue to inform the difficult judgments that we make.

“Two studies were published yesterday—the Scottish study and another study from Imperial College London. They are very encouraging, because they suggest that the proportion of people with omicron who are requiring hospital care might be lower. They estimate that there is a 30 to 70 per cent lower risk of people needing hospital care than there was with previous strains. That is all good but, where we are right now, we have to take care that we do not allow the much higher transmissibility of omicron to outweigh the benefits of, perhaps, its lower severity.”

Ms Sturgeon quoted  Professor Mark Woolhouse of the University of Edinburgh, who is one of the authors of the Edinburgh report: “An individual infection could be relatively mild for the vast majority of people, but the potential for all these infections to come at once and put serious strain on the NHS remains.”

Professor Neil Ferguson from Imperial College London said:  “It is clearly good news, to a degree.”

However, he said that the reduction is “not sufficient to dramatically change the modelling” and that the speed with which omicron is spreading means that  “there’s the potential of still getting hospitalisations in numbers that could put the NHS in a difficult position”.

She added: “We need to take care at this critical moment because, if we allow the spread of omicron to get too far ahead of us, even if it is significantly less severe, that is going to overwhelm us. Therefore, anything that we do right now that risks increasing spread, such as removing or weakening self-isolation rules too quickly, could be seriously counterproductive just at the point where we see some very good news on omicron.

“These are difficult judgments and they require difficult deliberation. That is what the Scottish Government will continue to give these questions in a very serious manner.”

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