A list of sectors whose workers will be exempt from Covid-19 self-isolation rules will be published by the government on Thursday (22 July), it has been announced.
The announcement comes as ministers struggle to contain the “pingdemic” which has forced thousands of workers to be forced into quarantine after being contacted by the NHS Track and Trace app.
'Very narrow' list of exemptions
Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng warned the list of sectors exempt from isolation rules will be “very narrow”, but it is expected to cover ‘critical’ industries.
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The change to guidance comes after at least half a dozen industry bodies from healthcare, transport, retail and manufacturing sectors warned of staff shortages caused by the alerts, with some companies reportedly missing 20 per cent of their workforce.
Mr Kwarteng told shoppers not to panic as supermarket shelves have been left empty due to staff shortages, with BP and Iceland forced to close some locations due to workers in quarantine.
Retailers are warning that the situation around the self isolation alerts from the NHS app is “untenable” and requires an urgent rule change.
The Prime Minister has acknowledged that the rules are “frustrating” but said the instruction to isolate must be accepted “as a consequence of living with Covid”, adding that people identified as close contacts of a coronavirus case are at least five times more likely to be infected than others.
Downing Street suggested earlier this week that a list of sectors exempting fully vaccinated workers from self isolation rules would not be released despite the widespread staff shortages.
However, in the face of mounting pressure, Mr Kwarteng said the government is now looking at introducing more relaxed rules for select industries and will be publishing a list of sectors that will be affected.
He said industries would not be expected to apply for exemption, despite No10 previously saying businesses would need to contact government departments for permission.
Workers urged to 'stick to the rules'
Mr Kwarteng would not “pre-empt” which sectors will be on the list, but warned it would be “very narrow, simply because we don’t want to get into a huge debate about who is exempt”.
The Business Secretary stressed the importance of continuing to “stick to the rules” after a food distribution company struggling with staff shortages advised workers who are pinged by the NHS app to take tests and continue working, in breach of the government advice.
He said: “I would stick to the rules, which are very clear, which say that if you are pinged you should self-isolate.”
Professor Ravi Gupta, a scientist advising the government as part of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), described the rules as a “mixed bag of measures which are creating confusion and havoc”.
He told Sky News: “I think it is a little bit difficult to justify people doing self-isolation when in fact we have held huge sporting events with large amounts of transmission that have probably gone undetected.
“So it’s a sort of half-hearted measure that is affecting the lives of many people, many of whom will be depending on their income on a daily basis, and for whom a week of isolation is disastrous.”
Boris Johnson announced plans for a “small number” of critical workers to be able to continue working despite being ‘pinged’ to self isolate earlier this week.
He confirmed that some key workers who have received both doses of a coronavirus vaccine will be freed from quarantine rules if they are contacted by the app, but will still have to test negative for Covid-19 to be able to attend work and take daily lateral flow tests.
People who do not qualify for exemption must continue to self-isolate if contacted by the app.
On Tuesday (20 July), the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “It’s not a blanket exemption and my understanding is we’re not going to be producing a list covering individual sectors, these business-critical areas will be able to apply for exemptions to their host departments.”
The government now appears to have changed its course amid mounting criticism.
It is expected that a wider relaxation for all double-jabbed individuals will be introduced later, but this will not come until 16 August – almost a month after most coronavirus laws ended in England.