The quarantine period for contacts of a positive coronavirus case and those travelling arriving from the vast majority of destinations to the UK is to be reduced from two weeks to 10 days.
The new rules will take effect in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland on Monday 14 December and apply to everyone currently self-isolating, including those who began doing so before that date.
It comes after Wales reduced its self-isolation requirement from 14 days to 10 yesterday.
“Self-isolation is essential to reducing the spread of Covid as it breaks the chains of transmission,” the chief medical officers of England (Professor Chris Whitty), Northern Ireland (Dr Michael McBride, Wales (Dr Frank Atherton) and Scotland’s interim CMO Dr Gregor Smith said in a joint statement.
“After reviewing the evidence, we are now confident that we can reduce the number of days that contacts self-isolate from 14 days to 10 days.
“People who return from countries which are not on the travel corridor list should also self-isolate for 10 days instead of 14 days.”
Since the government announced mandatory quarantine six months ago, the standard policy has been two weeks of self-isolation at home.
People are most infectious in the first two days before developing symptoms, if they are symptomatic, and for a small number of days afterwards.
But by day 10, only around one to two people in 100 are likely to still be capable of passing on the virus to others, according to experts.
Despite the changes to self-isolation, people are still advised to avoid high-risk activities when this period ends due to a residual risk of being infectious.
England’s deputy CMO Dr Jenny Harries said the decision was based on a “continuous accumulation of evidence” throughout the pandemic.
“And all of those combined together showed that the tail-end of infectiousness, if you like, is the one where an individual is least likely to transmit infection,” she told reporters.
“So allowing somebody out of self-isolation a short time earlier than that is a reasonable balance between managing the risk to the public but allowing us not to intrude on their lives.”
The quarantine obligation has been described as a travel ban in all but name by the aviation industry. It currently applies to almost all countries currently accessible from the UK.
Anyone returning on 14 December, the first day of the new policy, can leave quarantine at one minute past midnight on Christmas Day.
The introduction takes place a day before England’s test-to-release scheme begins.
Canary Islands removed from travel corridors list
That initiative will allow arrivals to take a Covid test five days after leaving a quarantine country and, if it is negative, end self-isolation.
The other three UK nations have said they will not introduce the option yet.
Hundreds of thousands of holidaymakers with plans for Canary Islands escapes are facing a dilemma: to continue with their trips, and accept quarantine, or abandon them.
They may be persuaded to travel by the reduced quarantine spell.
The decision, taken six months and one day after the UK controversially introduced blanket quarantine for all arriving travellers, will raise questions about whether the original policy was too harsh.