Scientists issue renewed calls for Covid isolation and masks to return this winter to ‘protect the NHS’ as study finds people are infectious for longer than expected
- Study found a quarter of cases are still infectious a week after symptoms start
- Contrary to NHS guidance that ‘many will no longer be infectious after five days’
- Tony Blair’s thinktank called for ‘mandatory mask wearing’ to be considered
There were renewed calls for Covid restrictions last night after a study found most people with the virus are infectious for longer than previously thought.
A study by Imperial College London found two-thirds of cases can pass it on five days after their symptoms begin, with a quarter still infectious after a week.
This is contrary to NHS guidance which states ‘many will no longer be infectious to others after five days’, and no-one in the UK legally has to isolate after testing positive for Covid.
Professor Ajit Lalvani, from Imperial College London and the lead author of the study, recommended people isolate for five days and do not leave isolation until they have tested negative twice on lateral flow tests.
It came after Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change urged the government to consider ‘mandatory mask wearing on public transport and most indoor public venues’ to reduce pressures on the NHS this winter.
And the World Health Organization (WHO) has urged people to ‘wear a mask and maintain social distancing’, adding: ‘Learning to live with Covid-19 does not mean pretending it’s not there.’
Health leaders have warned the NHS faces a crisis this winter, with the triple threat of Covid, flu and soaring fuel prices set to pile pressure on hospitals during the colder months.
Latest data shows England’s Covid wave is currently collapsing rapidly, with the number of people dying with the virus falling a fifth to 118 on August 8.
Government figures show hospitalisations fell 18 per cent on August 12, while infections also fell a fifth in the week up to July 26, according to the Office for National Statistics.
Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change urged the government to consider ‘mandatory mask wearing on public transport and most indoor public venues’ to reduce pressures on the NHS this winter
The effects of lockdown could be causing more deaths than Covid as nearly 10,000 more deaths than the five-year average are recorded, ONS data has found
Health chiefs have confirmed Britain’s autumn vaccine rollout will commence in the first week of September and use the Omicron-specific jab.
NHS England said 26million people elderly, middle-aged and vulnerable Britons will be called forward in order of their age and risk factors.
Care home residents and people who are housebound will be among the first to be vaccinated again from September 5.
All over-75s and the clinically vulnerable will be invited for their fifth shot from September 12, before moving down the age groups as with previous rollouts.
This week the UK became the first country in the world to approve Moderna’s bivalent vaccine, which targets both the original strain of the virus and the Omicron variant.
The NHS says it will be offered to people as the default first option, ‘subject to sufficient supply’.
The original Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will also be used as part of the rollout, along with the Novavax vaccine.
The new study, published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine journal, is the first of its kind to reveal how long infectiousness lasts after coronavirus infection in the community.
Experts monitored 57 people at home after they were exposed to Covid-19 to test how long they remained infectious.
Participants filled in questionnaires about their symptoms and took detailed daily tests to see how much virus they were shedding.
Just one in five people were infectious before their symptoms developed, but two thirds of cases were still infectious five days after first falling unwell.
Professor Lalvani, director of the NIHR Health Protection Research Unit in Respiratory Infections at Imperial, said: ‘Before this study we were missing half of the picture about infectiousness, because it’s hard to know when people are first exposed to SARS-CoV-2 and when they first become infectious.
‘By using special daily tests to measure infectious virus (not just PCR) and daily symptom records, we were able to define the window in which people are infectious.
‘This is fundamental to controlling any pandemic and has not been previously defined for any respiratory infection in the community.’
He added: ‘Combining our results with what we know about the dynamics of Omicron infections, we believe that the duration of infectiousness we’ve observed is broadly generalisable to current SARS-CoV-2 variants, though their infectious window may be a bit shorter.
‘Our evidence can be used to inform infection control policies and self-isolation guidance to help reduce the transmission of SARS-CoV-2.’
It comes after Mr Blair’s thinktank warned a ‘perfect storm’ of soaring demand and collapsing capacity will see hospitals fill up in the ‘worst crisis in the NHS’s history’ this winter.
In a report, the foundation called for ‘strategic implementation of mask mandates’ in autumn and winter to ease pressures on wards.
And Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, the director general of the WHO, yesterday told people around the world
He said 15,000 people died of Covid globally last week, which ‘we cannot live with’.
In a video on social media, he said: ‘None of us is helpless. Please get vaccinated if you’re not, and get a booster if you need it.
‘Wear mask and maintain social distancing.’
The new Imperial study followed people who were exposed to someone with PCR-confirmed Covid in their home between September 2020 and March 2021 and May-October 2021, including some who were vaccinated and others who were not.
Samples from a total of 57 people were used, but the duration of infectiousness was only measured in 42 people.
There were 38 people with a confirmed date of when their symptoms started and three were asymptomatic.
Professor Lalvani said: ‘Self-isolation is not necessary by law, but people who want to isolate need clear guidance on what to do.
‘The NHS currently advises that if you test positive for Covid-19 you should try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people for five days, but our data suggest that under a crude five-day self-isolation period two-thirds of cases released into the community would still be infectious – though their level of infectiousness would have substantially reduced compared to earlier in the course of their infection.’
He continued: ‘Our study finds that infectiousness usually begins soon after you develop Covid-19 symptoms.
‘We recommend that anyone who has been exposed to the virus and has symptoms isolates for five days, then uses daily lateral flow tests to safely leave isolation when two consecutive daily tests are negative.’
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