It comes amid an increasingly optimistic backdrop as the prevalence of the virus in society decreases, with modellers said to believe the risk of a third wave is dwindling due to promising vaccine data. Deaths from Covid-19 have also been below the five year average of flu for the past six weeks.
The trial will begin in England next Sunday and will reduce the numbers of people forced to miss work, and will help kickstart the economy.
Another sign the pandemic is under control came as it emerged some track and trace contracts are not being renewed.
A source said: “As a result of decreasing levels of prevalence, NHS test and trace are reducing the size of the contract tracing workforce.”
Tests could ‘shift the dial’ in lifting restrictions
The reduction in the team is in response to the fall in daily case rates, from 60,000 new cases each day at the peak, to around 2,000 currently.
A Department for Health spokesman said: “We are continuing to respond to changes in demand and reflect staff numbers accordingly. Just as we increased numbers working in the trace service over the winter, we are now responding to the reduction in case numbers we’ve seen this spring.”
Launching the Covid contact self-isolation study on Sunday, Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, said the research could “shift the dial” in favour of lifting yet more restrictions.
“This new pilot could help shift the dial in our favour by offering a viable alternative to self-isolation for people who are contacts of positive Covid-19 cases, and one that would allow people to carry on going to work and living their lives,” he said.
“Alongside the phenomenal progress of our vaccination rollout – with over 48 million vaccines administered so far – rapid testing is allowing us to get back to doing the things we all love.”
From May 9, close contacts of people with Covid-19 will be contacted by telephone and sent seven days of rapid tests if they wish to participate in the study.
They will test themselves each morning for a week and, if negative and showing no symptoms, be exempt from home quarantine.
Prof Isabel Oliver, who is leading the study as Public Health England’s national infection service director, said the research will be key to informing how “the approach to testing might evolve”.
She said: “This study will help to determine whether we can deploy daily testing for contacts to potentially reduce the need for self-isolation, while still ensuring that chains of transmission are stopped.
“Contacts of cases are at higher risk of infection so testing them is a very effective way of preventing further spread.”
Daily testing a ‘feasible alternative’
The study builds on previous trials. Since December, more than 200 schools, 180 workplaces and about 800 people have participated in daily testing pilots, which have proven effective in reducing the need for self-isolation, as well as identifying cases of Covid-19 that would not have otherwise been found.
A document for the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) released on Friday detailed an earlier pilot of 1,370 close contacts using testing as an alternative to isolation.
Running between December and January, the uptake of daily testing was 62 per cent, but the group found that this was lower among people from ethnic minority groups.
“Overall, our data suggested that daily testing has the potential to be a feasible and acceptable alternative to self-isolation,” the researchers said.
“However, there is a need to develop materials and campaigns to explain the rationale and procedures and address concerns, especially among BAME communities.”
Health officials are drawing up plans to offer Pfizer jabs to children aged 12 and over from September, The Sunday Times reported on Saturday night. “No decision has been made yet but we are drawing up planning materials for the different scenarios,” a source told the newspaper.