Double-vaccinated NHS staff could be released from self-isolation rules before August 16 under proposals being considered by Sajid Javid, The Telegraph has learned.
The Health Secretary is considering whether the test and release system for healthcare workers could be brought forward to an earlier date after becoming alarmed at the prospect of staff shortages, according to multiple government sources.
He is now understood to be seeking clinical advice on whether the change can be made.
Separately, two NHS sources told The Telegraph that "live discussions" were taking place about how to reduce the number of staff being sent home to isolate as Covid cases continue to surge.
One senior health service source said: "We are expecting some movement on this – all the indications are that they are clear about the scale of the problem and the need for action, but we are waiting to hear what is decided."
Another said: "There is real recognition in government that there is a major issue here – obviously NHS staff were among the first to be vaccinated, so we have people who are double jabbed, and have been for some time, who are having to self-isolate repeatedly."
Should Mr Javid decide to move the date forward from August 16, he is likely to argue that a "very specific" exemption is justified given the critical role of NHS staff in the pandemic response.
The Health Secretary is also looking at whether the sensitivity of the NHS app can be changed so that people have to be in closer proximity to an infected person for longer in order to be pinged.
It comes after Chris Hopson, the chief executive of NHS Providers, which represents hospitals, said earlier this week that trust leaders were pushing for earlier release for NHS staff.
Amid fears that millions of people a week could be contacted by Test and Trace or pinged on the NHS app by August, Mr Hopson said there was a "major risk" that "even more NHS staff will have to self-isolate as community infection rates spike".
Echoing his concerns, the College of Paramedics on Friday called for the ending of self-isolation rules for fully vaccinated health workers in order to help relieve pressure on A&E departments.
Warning that emergency care was facing "significant pressures", Richard Webber, the College’s national spokesman, said: "Clearly if you’re symptomatic or you’re ill [then you should isolate]. Virtually all of the health services have to do a lateral flow test twice a week – if you haven’t got Covid and your lateral flow test is negative, why are we waiting until August [to end isolation]?"
However, on Friday night government sources stressed that no decisions had been taken. They were unable to confirm whether the date for NHS workers could be brought forward to as soon as July 19 to coincide with the final lifting of lockdown restrictions.
Boris Johnson’s spokesman told reporters there were already some exemptions in place for "some clinical staff, where they are wearing appropriate clinical grade PPE [personal protective equipment]". He confirmed that a further exemption – for those who were pinged because of contact in their daily activities – was "something we are looking at ahead of step four".
Self isolation extension poll
Meanwhile, Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, said the sensitivity of the NHS app would be altered "to align with recommendations that come in on July 19" when social distancing measures are relaxed.
Since its introduction, the app has already been deliberately boosted on several occasions to increase the number of "close contacts" it captures. These moves could be reversed in order to dampen its sensitivity, in particular where contact was minimal.
Under its original settings, the bluetooth technology classed people as close if their phones were within two metres of each other for a sustained period of around 15 minutes. Earlier this year, this was changed so that a few fleeting interactions over the course of a day could be added together to hit the same threshold.
The complex system uses risk scores, which were changed dramatically in October in a deliberate effort to capture more contacts, with the total slashed from 900 to 120 points.
At the time, the Department of Health of Social Care said the change was expected to increase the number of people asked to self-isolate by the app.
On Friday, Prof Robert West, a member of the behavioural science subgroup of Sage (SPI-B), admitted he had not kept the contact tracing part of his NHS app switched on.
Amid concerns that millions of people may be turning off the app to avoid being pinged, Prof West told Times Radio he sympathised with those who did so but insisted he had only chosen to do so because it "kept crashing my phone".
"We’re all being told to act responsibly and I should as well – we all should," he said.