Thousands of critical workers freed from 'pingdemic' isolation

22 July 2021, 21:07 | Updated: 23 July 2021, 16:58

Environment Secretary explains ping exemption list

By Daisy Stephens

The Government has released a list of 16 sectors where 'critical workers' can avoid self-isolation if they are told to quarantine by the NHS Covid app.

The new rules will apply to fully-vaccinated workers - people who had their second dose more than 14 days ago - in the following areas:

  • 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 outputs
  • Local government

There may be some "exceptional" circumstances where a role meets the criteria but is not on the list, in which case the employer is advised to contact the relevant Government department where queries will be dealt with on a case-by-case basis.

Environment Secretary George Eustice told LBC this morning: "We've identified close to 500 sites including around 170 supermarket depots and then several hundred of the largest most important manufacturers.

"We’re starting from today in the first 15 of those depots and will be rolling out quickly that where they have staff who are pinged and asked to isolate they can continue to come in to work, do a daily test at work, and provided that test stays negative they can keep working.

"It is going to affect well over 10,000 people playing crucial roles in the food supply chain, whatever that role may be.”

The guidance also stresses the process "will not cover all or in most cases even the majority of workers in critical sectors", suggesting that, for example, while people in crucial railway signalling roles could be covered by the exemption, it was less likely to be applied to individual drivers.

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Move follows supermarket supply fears

The news comes amid concern about dwindling supermarket stock as a result of high levels of self-isolation amongst supply chain staff.

It has also been announced that daily testing will be rolled out to critical workplaces in the food supply chain to free up contacts who would otherwise be self-isolating.

"Throughout this global pandemic, workers in our food and drink sectors have overcome enormous challenges and done everything they can to keep our shelves stocked and our fridges full,” said Health and Social Care Secretary Sajid Javid.

"As we manage this virus and do everything we can to break chains of transmission, daily contact testing of workers in this vital sector will help to minimise the disruption caused by rising cases in the coming weeks, while ensuring workers are not put at risk."

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'Worse than useless'

Richard Harrow, chief executive of the British 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.

"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."

A dairy company executive told the PA news agency: "We have thousands of workers. The idea of picking a handful of 'critical workers' at each huge supplier feels like nonsense.

"We cannot pick a few workers who can keep products going to supermarkets if shortages keep arising - that isn't how it works."

The decision to limit the exemption to suppliers and not many shop floor workers has also been criticised.

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Companies apply for exemptions

The new process for these 16 sectors will allow critical workers to carry on with their jobs even if identified as a contact of a coronavirus case, and is only intended to run until August 16, when a wider relaxation for fully vaccinated contacts is set to take effect.

Individuals identified as contacts should only attend work in "critical elements of national infrastructure" and if their absence "would be likely to lead to the loss or compromise of this infrastructure" resulting in a "major detrimental impact" on the delivery of essential services or a significant impact on national security.

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Where employers believe the self-isolation of certain key employees as contacts would result in serious disruption to critical services, they have been asked to contact the relevant Government department.

They will need to give the number of people they wish to leave isolation, the roles these people need to perform, what the impact of their isolation would be and when that impact would occur.

If the request is approved, the employer will receive a letter naming the workers who are exempt. You will not be exempt from isolation unless your employer has this letter with your name on.

Anyone working in the above sectors who tests positive for Covid-19, or experiences symptoms, will not qualify for the exemption and must self-isolate as normal.

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Self-isolation rules change amid 'pingdemic'

The changes in self-isolation rules for some workers were announced in response to an increasing number of people being told to isolate by the NHS Covid app - coined the 'pingdemic'.

Over 600,000 alerts were sent from the app last week - a record number, and one that was resulting in increasing disruption to businesses.

From August 16 the rules will change for the general population, with fully-jabbed adults not needing to isolate after this date unless they test positive for Covid-19 or show symptoms.

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Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told LBC on Thursday that No10 was still planning on maintaining self-isolation rules until the 16 August.

"I think that we can stick to August 16," he said.

"We wanted to lift restrictions on 19 July and there was clear evidence to suggest that that was a good idea.

"But we also wanted to have a precaution in terms of protecting our people. So I think that self-isolation, once you’re pinged, makes complete sense."

"These restrictions aren’t going to last forever."