Matt Hancock rejected advice to slash the 14-day Covid isolation period because it would “imply we’d been getting it wrong”, according to leaked WhatsApp messages. The then health secretary was told by England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty in November 2020 it would be “pretty well as good” for contacts of positive coronavirus cases to test for five days instead of spending two weeks in quarantine.
But Mr Hancock raised concerns it could make it appear that the government had been wrong.
In the exchange on November 17 2020, Sir Chris said: “CMOs [chief medical officers] and Sage [the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies] in favor of a pilot with presumption in favor of testing for 5 days in lieu of isolation (alternative 10 days isolation).
“But needs a pilot to test this out and check it works and Mhra [the medicines regulator] have not yet signed off for self use.”
Mr Hancock said: “So test every day for just five days? That sounds like a massive loosening.”
Sir Chris replied: “The modeling suggests it’s pretty well as good. And we think adherence is likely to be good.
“The modellers were in favor of three days (given the lag time to get a result) but we were not in favor.”
The then health secretary said: “I’m amazed. This sounds very risky and we can’t go backwards – wouldn’t testing every day for 10 days be a safer starting point?”
Sir Chris said: “We could push out to seven but the benefits really flattened out after five.
“We would expect symptomatic people to get a PCR test as normal.”
The then health secretary said: “Amazing. So has the 14-day isolation been too long all this time?”
Sir Chris replied: “Fourteen days is marginally safer than 10 but almost certainly at the expense of reduced adherence so it probably balances out.”
The then health secretary said: “Fair enough. So, I think moving to seven-day daily testing for contacts would be huge for adherence, but going below that would seriously worry people and imply we’d been getting it wrong.
“Presumably we can explain some of the shorter period because the test would pick up the disease before symptoms.”
Sir Chris said he would go back to the UK’s other chief medical officers, adding: “I think they will be sympathetic to this.”
Ministers reduced the self-isolation period to 10 days in December 2020.
In May 2021 a pilot scheme was launched allowing some people identified as close contacts of Covid cases to take daily tests for seven days.
Self-isolation was completely dropped in February 2022.
The exchange is part of more than 100,000 leaked WhatsApp messages sent between the then health secretary and other ministers and officials at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Hancock gave the messages to journalist Isabel Oakeshott as they collaborated on his memoirs, but she subsequently handed them to the Telegraph which has sparked a flurry of stories based on the correspondence.