PM loosens isolation rules for 'small number' of critical workers

19 July 2021, 20:33

Boris Johnson made the announcement virtually from Chequers, where he is currently self-isolating
Boris Johnson made the announcement virtually from Chequers, where he is currently self-isolating. Picture: Alamy Live News

By Daisy Stephens

Isolation rules will be relaxed for a "small number" of fully-vaccinated critical workers who are identified as close contacts of coronavirus cases.

Boris Johnson announced the change after coming under sustained pressure over the so-called "pingdemic"

Speaking at a press conference on Monday, the prime minister said a “very small number” of critical workers would be able to leave isolation to ensure the provision of “crucial services”.

“I want to assure you that we will protect crucial services, including the staffing of our hospitals and our care homes, the supplies of food, water electricity and medicines, the running of our trains, the protection of our borders, the defence of our realm, by making sure that a small number - a very small number - of named fully-vaccinated critical workers are able to leave their isolation solely for the work that I have described,” Mr Johnson said.

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Speaking in the House of Commons, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi gave more details on the incoming exemption for self-isolation, which already covers frontline NHS staff and social care workers.

Mr Zahawi said the change would cover the police, air traffic controllers and train signallers, and others in "circumstances where there would be a serious risk of harm to public welfare if people in critical roles are unable to go to their workplace".

"So people in those kinds of roles, who have received two vaccinations plus two weeks beyond the second vaccine, will not need to self-isolate for those critical tasks," he added.

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The British Retail Consortium called for clarity on who would be exempt, and said retail workers and suppliers should be included for the "vital role" they have played in the pandemic.

Chief executive Helen Dickinson said: "While it is good that Government recognises the problems that are being created by an overzealous track and trace system, it remains unclear who will be covered under the new list of critical workers.

"With community cases soaring, the number of healthy retail staff having to self-isolate is rising fast, threatening to disrupt retail operations, and potentially close shops or distribution centres."

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While the Prime Minister has conceded on relaxing isolation rules for critical workers, he resisted widespread calls to announce a more wide-reaching change to reduce the number of people in isolation.

From August 16, fully-vaccinated contacts will no longer need to self-isolate and will undergo a testing regime instead.

There had been calls for the Government to bring this change forward as the number of people being told to isolate in recent weeks has soared.

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Hospitality, leisure, food production and retail sectors have complained of having to close premises or slash opening hours because of the number of people being told to stay at home for 10 days after being in contact with a person who has tested positive.

But Mr Johnson described self-isolation as “one of the few shots we have got left in our locker”, and said: "For the vast majority of us, myself included, I'm afraid we do need to stick with this system for now."

Downing Street also said there are no plans to reduce the sensitivity of the NHS Covid-19 app responsible for some of the isolation requests by issuing "pings" over close contacts.

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The Prime Minister’s statement was made remotely from his official country residence, where he is currently isolating after Health Secretary Sajid Javid tested positive for Covid-19.

Mr Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak initially tried to avoid quarantining after being contacted by NHS Test and Trace, by saying they were taking part in a testing pilot.

But in the face of mounting public fury they made a swift U-turn, which meant three of the most senior ministers were among those in quarantine on "freedom day".

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Mr Johnson insisted he did not think he was above the rules following the aborted plan, that would have allowed him to continue working from Downing Street instead of self-isolating.

"I absolutely didn't think that," he told the press conference.

"I am today on Zoom or Teams or whatever brilliant system it is that we are using."

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Other measures announced at Monday’s press conference included the intention to implement vaccine passports at nightclubs and vaccinate vulnerable children over the age of 12.

"I should serve notice now that by the end of September, when all over 18s will have had the chance to be double jabbed, we are planning to make full vaccination the condition of entry to nightclubs and other venues where large crowds gather," said Mr Johnson.

"Proof of a negative test will no longer be sufficient."