UK

Ministers discuss expanding self-isolation exemptions for workers

Just 25 of the Government’s promised 500 coronavirus testing sites for food distribution workers are up and running, it was claimed today, as ministers scramble to undo the damage caused by the ‘pingdemic’.

The Government announced last week that some fully vaccinated staff in some critical sectors would be exempt from having to self-isolate if they are ‘pinged’ as a close contact of a positive coronavirus case. 

Those people would be subject to daily Covid-19 testing instead, allowing them to continue to go to work.  

Some 500 sites in the food sector – manufacturing facilities, food processing plants and supermarket depots – were reportedly contacted and informed they would be given testing capability. 

But The Times said that only approximately 25 of those sites were due to be operational from today. 

The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman was unable to confirm how many testing units are now live but insisted ‘it will be 500 by the end of the week’. 

It came as ministers were due to meet to discuss expanding the eligibility criteria for workers in key sectors to avoid the self-isolation rules amid mounting fears over the strain placed on critical infrastructure by the ‘pingdemic’. 

The Covid operations sub-committee of Cabinet is looking at extending the rollout of daily testing sites for coronavirus and to consider granting further exemptions from the stay-at-home requirements for some workers.

Ministers will decide whether to widen the number of jobs eligible for the test and release approach and whether to boost the numbers for existing sectors in order to tackle the recent wave of staff absences.  

The meeting comes after union bosses urged key workers to ignore the Government’s exemptions from self-isolation and to stay at home for 10 days if they are ‘pinged’ by the NHS Covid app. 

Leaders from some of the UK’s biggest unions, including the RMT, Unison and Usdaw, are telling critical workers in transport, food and border control among other sectors to continue to quarantine if they are contacted by the app, citing fears staff could become infected in workplaces.

Steve Hedley, the RMT’s senior assistant general-secretary, also threatened strike action over the exemptions scheme, telling the Telegraph: ‘Why should our people be infected with Covid? We have discussed the possibility of taking action at a senior level, and I can say that nothing has been ruled out.’   

Sir Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, said he would not support strike action as he insisted ‘we need to keep our critical sectors working’. 

Any move to defy the Government’s exemptions plans will spark concerns of further disruption to critical infrastructure as the nation braces for potential travel and food supply chaos. 

However, Education Minister Vicky Ford this morning tried to assuage the concerns of unions as she insisted the exemptions would only apply to ‘a really, really small number of people’ in ‘certain really, really crucial sectors’. 

Union chiefs are urging key workers to ignore the Government’s exemptions from self-isolation and stay home if they are ‘pinged’ by the NHS Covid app, in a move that threatens disruption for shoppers, commuters and holidaymakers

Food industry leaders claim they are yet to receive further details about which workers will be allowed to skip isolation rules if they are 'pinged' by the NHS Covid app. Pictured: Empty soft drinks shelves in Tesco in Cardiff on Friday

Food industry leaders claim they are yet to receive further details about which workers will be allowed to skip isolation rules if they are ‘pinged’ by the NHS Covid app. Pictured: Empty soft drinks shelves in Tesco in Cardiff on Friday 

Government guidance lists 16 sectors: energy, civil nuclear, digital infrastructure, food production and supply, waste, water, veterinary medicines, essential chemicals, essential transport, medicines, medical devices, clinical consumable supplies, emergency services, border control, essential defence and local government

Government guidance lists 16 sectors: energy, civil nuclear, digital infrastructure, food production and supply, waste, water, veterinary medicines, essential chemicals, essential transport, medicines, medical devices, clinical consumable supplies, emergency services, border control, essential defence and local government

Education minister Vicky Ford this morning tried to assuage the concerns of unions as she insisted the exemptions would only apply to 'a really, really small number of people' in 'certain really, really crucial sectors'

Education minister Vicky Ford this morning tried to assuage the concerns of unions as she insisted the exemptions would only apply to ‘a really, really small number of people’ in ‘certain really, really crucial sectors’

Double-jabbed key workers are able to avoid house-arrest via a Downing Street testing scheme launched amid mounting fears over the chaos to key infrastructure caused by the so-called ‘pingdemic’ after more than 600,000 people were told to self-isolate by the NHS app last week.

Policing Minister Kit Malthouse has already been forced to apologise for delays at the border as families set off on the first weekend of the summer holidays, which were branded ‘total chaos’ by travellers and which he blamed on the ‘pingdemic’.  

Paddy Lillis, general secretary of retail and food manufacturing union Usdaw, said staff would be encouraged to stay at home rather than return to work and said: ‘Usdaw does not believe that the current situation in the food supply chain is critical or warrants the sector being placed on the exemption list.’ 

Christina McAnea, the general secretary of Unison, told the newspaper: ‘Anyone pinged or called by Test and Trace should isolate. Staying at home protects colleagues, neighbours, friends and everyone else too. No one should be forced into work when isolating, even those employees on the exempt list.’

Sir Keir told LBC Radio that he wants the exemptions to work as he signalled his opposition to the stance taken by the union leaders. 

Asked if he would support industrial action, the Labour leader said: ‘No, I don’t think that is the right way. I think that if it is possible to show that with a double vaccination and a negative test critical workers can go back to work I would support that.

‘Obviously we need to keep an eye on how safe it is, we need to be cautious but we need to keep our critical sectors working and I think we should support exemptions which allow us to do that.’

Ministers will today discuss the growing chaos across the UK’s critical infrastructure at a meeting of Covid-O, the Cabinet subcommittee handling pandemic operations. 

Ms Ford told Sky News: ‘I think it is important that we also minimise the disruption to the economy and that is why we have looked at certain really, really crucial sectors and are saying in those circumstances that double vaccinated adults if they haven’t had the positive test, they don’t have any symptoms then they can continue to work.

‘But this is a really, really small number of people in order to keep these truly essential services running.

‘It is services like, for example, police, fire, border control, some of the food sector, and some elements of transport as well.

‘But as I say, the key date to move forward to is just in a couple of weeks time, August 16, where all adults who have had that double vaccination they they will be able to avoid the self-isolation unless they have got symptoms or a positive test.’  

Downing Street was unable to say how many of the food sector-specific testing sites are up and running today. 

The PM’s Official Spokesman said: ‘We expect 500 sites to be able to test within this week and we said at the end of last week we have rolled out the workplace contact testing following the Government’s engagement with the industries that have been affected by self-isolation.

‘It is obviously the case that we want to avoid any disruption in critical services which is why we have expanded that testing.’

Pushed again on how many are operational amid the reports that it is only 25, the spokesman replied: ‘It will be 500 by the end of the week.’

As well as the 500 testing sites for the food supply chain, a further 200 sites are being set up in other key sectors.

Industry bosses have been calling for an emergency plan to tackle the impact of the ‘pingdemic’ on the UK’s food supply network which has been an ‘absolute disaster’ and has done ‘more harm than good’.

Food industry leaders claim they are yet to receive further details from the Government about which workers will be allowed to skip isolation rules if they are ‘pinged’ by the NHS Covid app.

They also say hundreds of businesses which are to be allowed to take part in the scheme have not yet been briefed on the full details.

It comes after the Government bowed to growing pressure from the industry by allowing a key-worker exemption for food supply chain workers. Instead of being forced straight into isolation when ‘pinged’, food supply chain workers, along with a handful of other key workers, will instead be allowed to take part in daily testing. 

Up to 10,000 staff, from across 500 different sites, are expected to qualify for the scheme. However supermarket workers are not included. Testing sites are due to be set up at 15 ‘crucial’ supermarket depots as of today.

The move came after it was revealed how more than a million adults across the UK have been forced into isolation in the last week – 600,000 of which have been ‘pinged’ by the NHS Covid-19 app.

The sheer number of workers being forced into isolation – even if they never end up having Covid – has sparked fears of a disruption to the food supply chain and empty supermarket shelves in some areas.

But plans by ministers to fix the issue have come under fire by industry leaders, who have criticised the Government over a ‘lack of communication’. 

James Bielby, of the Federation of Wholesale Distribution, which supplies food to outlets other than supermarkets, told the Observer newspaper that the industry still had no idea who is  on the list of exempted groups.

He also said that of the 500 businesses supposedly included, only 3 per cent had actually been notified.

Mr Bielby said: ‘It’s total chaos. There are 15 businesses who were part of the initial run through [of the scheme] on Friday, but there’s supposed to be 500 businesses in total, it’s entirely opaque.’ 

Meanwhile, Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, the organisation representing companies that move frozen and chilled foods, said: ‘Several days after the prime minister told us the food supply chain was critical and would be exempt, we still don’t have a definitive list of who will be exempt and what is required of them. 

‘Businesses are fighting to keep food on shelves, and I regret that despite the best intentions in some places, government has done more harm than good.’  

It comes as frontline businesses and services paralysed by pingdemic chaos will get access to 200 new testing sites from Monday. 

The Government's emergency plan to tackle the pingdemic's impact on the food supply industry has been an 'absolute disaster' and has done more harm than good, industry bosses have claimed. Pictured: A shopper walks past a row of empty shelves in ASDA Cardiff on Friday)

The Government’s emergency plan to tackle the pingdemic’s impact on the food supply industry has been an ‘absolute disaster’ and has done more harm than good, industry bosses have claimed. Pictured: A shopper walks past a row of empty shelves in ASDA Cardiff on Friday)

Some 200 new test centres are going to be set up throughout the country to try and stem the chaos caused by the pindemic

Some 200 new test centres are going to be set up throughout the country to try and stem the chaos caused by the pindemic

The Government on Saturday said in a statement that an expected initial extra 200 testing sites would be opened so that daily contact testing could be ‘rolled out to further critical workplaces in England’. 

But it came as it was claimed the system causing the problem could not be stopped – because there is not enough testing capacity to allow the ‘test and release’ method to take over.

The chaotic situation sparked harsh words from some sectors over the lack of clarity from the authorities. 

Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association, added: ‘We desperately need this detail and need it quickly. The last we heard, communication could be coming on Monday, so we have a long weekend to get through yet. We need a sense of urgency here.’ 

Richard Harrow, chief executive of the Frozen Food Federation, said: ‘The Government announcement last night that parts of the supply chain will be allowed to test and release workers that are pinged by Track and Trace only goes part of the way.

James Bielby, of the Federation of Wholesale Distribution (FWD), which supplies food to outlets other than supermarkets, told the Observer that the industry still had no idea who was actually on the list of exempted groups

James Bielby, of the Federation of Wholesale Distribution (FWD), which supplies food to outlets other than supermarkets, told the Observer that the industry still had no idea who was actually on the list of exempted groups

‘It shows that yet again Government does not understand how connected the food supply chain is.

‘Only opening part is unlikely to solve the overall issue. Plus, who is in and who is out, who decides and how do they decide?

‘Confusion continues to pervade and I have been advised no list until Monday. This is worse than useless.’

Cornwall Airport Newquay said it was being ‘very much affected’ by staff shortages due to isolation orders and its boss was not optimistic over discussions over exemptions with the Department for Transport.

Managing director Peter Downes told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘We’ve been told to expect exemptions in very small numbers of people, in ones and twos, rather than large numbers of staff. 

‘When we have between a quarter and a third in some cases of individual teams being pinged by the system in one go, and as soon as you get people back you’re often losing others to fresh notifications, we don’t believe that the scheme is going to cater for that.’

One industry not to feature in the exemptions list was hospitality, with its trade association warning the sector will have ‘one hand tied behind our back’ as staff are forced into isolation over Covid-19 contacts during what should be the peak season.

Calling for a ‘more pragmatic solution’, UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls said: ‘We now face a summer of venue closures and reduced service, when we should be at a seasonal peak.

‘The sector will do all it can to provide great service, but it will be with one hand tied behind our back. 

‘Those who are fully vaccinated should be able to test after a ping and, subject to a negative result, carry on with their lives. For those not fully vaccinated two negative tests should be sufficient to return to work.’

Home Secretary Priti Patel insisted: ‘Daily testing will keep our frontline teams safe while they continue to serve the public and communities across our country.’

The expansion came after the Government on Thursday announced its programme would allow thousands of workers at up to 500 sites in the food sector to avoid the need to self-isolate if identified as a contact of a coronavirus case, and instead take daily Covid tests.

Discontent with the Government’s self-isolation policy was growing at the weekend as food industry bosses condemned changes to ease the ‘pingdemic’ , hospitality leaders warned of a summer of closures and train operators were forced to cut services.

Pressure has mounted on Downing Street to bring forward the date at which people who are double vaccinated against coronavirus can avoid self-isolation. 

Freedom day has prompted an extraordinary onslaught of pings to people following the coronavirus rules still left

Freedom day has prompted an extraordinary onslaught of pings to people following the coronavirus rules still left

There were increasing calls for Mr Johnson to bring forward his wider relaxation of quarantine rules for the fully vaccinated from August 16 as businesses were hampered by staff being told to isolate as coronavirus cases soar.

In a bid to calm the concerns of industry, ministers published a limited list of sectors whose double-jabbed workers are eligible to avoid isolation if they undergo daily testing before the wider easing of rules for England.

Industry leaders said the move did not include sufficient workers but doctors warned the problem is that the Prime Minister has let the virus ‘rip’ and not the ‘pings’ being issued by the NHS Covid-19 app to tell coronavirus contacts to isolate.

The mounting criticism came as data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed Covid-19 cases continued to rise, with around one in 75 people in England infected.

‘When we have between a quarter and a third in some cases of individual teams being pinged by the system in one go, and as soon as you get people back you’re often losing others to fresh notifications, we don’t believe that the scheme is going to cater for that.’

One industry not to feature in the exemptions list was hospitality, with its trade association warning the sector will have ‘one hand tied behind our back’ as staff are forced into isolation over Covid-19 contacts during what should be the peak season.

Calling for a ‘more pragmatic solution’, UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls said: ‘We now face a summer of venue closures and reduced service, when we should be at a seasonal peak.

‘The sector will do all it can to provide great service, but it will be with one hand tied behind our back. 

‘Those who are fully vaccinated should be able to test after a ping and, subject to a negative result, carry on with their lives. For those not fully vaccinated two negative tests should be sufficient to return to work.’ 


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