More than a million pupils in England were out of school because of coronavirus last week, as rising infections are driving up the numbers asked to self-isolate. The Department for Education said 14.3 per cent of all school pupils were at home, most of them isolating because of contact with someone at school who had tested positive for the virus.
The latest figures were published amid mixed signals from Boris Johnson's government over whether people alerted by the NHS Covid app must follow its instruction to self-isolate. Business minister Paul Scully said on Tuesday morning it was up to individuals and employers whether they chose to self-isolate after being "pinged" by the app.
“It’s important to understand the rules,” he told Times Radio. “You have to legally isolate if you are contacted by test and trace, or if you’re trying to claim isolation payments. The app is there to allow you to make informed decisions. And I think by backing out of mandating a lot of things, we’re encouraging people to really get the data in their own hands, to be able to make decisions – what’s best for them, whether they’re an employer or an employee.”
The app is voluntary and anonymous, and its instructions do not carry the force of law, but soon after Mr Scully made his comments, Downing Street appeared to slap him down.
“Isolation remains the most important action people can take to stop the spread of the virus,” a Downing Street spokeswoman said. “Given the risk of having and spreading the virus when people have been in contact with someone with Covid, it is crucial people isolate when they are told to do so, either by NHS test and trace or by the NHS Covid app. Businesses should be supporting employees to isolate, they should not be encouraging them to break isolation.”
Mr Johnson is self-isolating at Chequers after he and chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak were identified as close contacts of health secretary Sajid Javid, who has tested positive for coronavirus. The prime minister has agreed to exempt workers in some key sectors from the requirement to self-isolate if identified by the test and trace system.
Britain reported 46,558 new coronavirus cases and 96 deaths on Tuesday, reflecting a rise of more than 40 per cent in case numbers in the past week.