Pressure is mounting on the government to bring forward the date at which people who are double vaccinated against coronavirus can avoid self-isolation, as emergency measures to protect food supplies were launched on Thursday.
While the government has said it is “crucial” for people to quarantine after being “pinged” by the NHS Covid-19 app, more than 10,000 critical food sector workers will be exempt from self-isolation rules, along with other key staff.
Self-isolation is still a key part of the fight against Covid-19, environment secretary George Eustice told Sky News as he announced the exemptions.
“We’ve identified close to 500 key sites, that includes around 170 supermarket depots, and then another couple of hundred key manufacturers like our bread manufacturers, dairy companies and so on,” he said.
“All of the people working in those key strategic sites, distribution depots and those manufacturing facilities will be able to use this scheme, and probably well over 10,000 people.”
A small number of named people in other industries such as transport will also be freed from self-isolation if they have received both doses of the Covid jab.
This latest announcement comes amid growing concerns about the so-called “pingdemic” sweeping the country, with business chiefs warning of crippling staff shortages.
With case numbers rising sharply in England as restrictions are lifted, hundreds of thousands of people have been alerted to stay at home after being deemed to have been in close contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19.
Latest NHS figures show 618,903 alerts were sent to users of the app in the week to July 14, before England’s restrictions were lifted and more social contact was allowed.
Many small businesses have had to close completely, with even larger companies also affected – pub chain Greene King shut 33 pubs in a week, and PureGym said up to 25% of staff are isolating in some areas.
This has led to calls from business owners to reform the current self-isolation rules and photos of empty supermarket shelves have only increased this.
What have MPs said about being pinged?
George Eustice defended the government’s new exemptions, which do not cover supermarket workers, as he said it would be a “significant undertaking” to include them.
When asked whether the hospitality industry could be included, he told Sky News: “The reason we’ve made a special exception for food is for very obvious reasons – we need to make sure that we maintain our food supply, we will never take risks with our food supply.
“When it comes to other sectors, yes, of course the fact that they are also carrying high absence levels is causing some stress for them and making it more difficult.
“You also have to bear in mind why we’re doing this and we are trying to still just dampen the pace and the velocity at which this infection is spreading because we have to keep a very close eye on those hospitalisations.”
This comes after former health secretary Jeremy Hunt said the government risks “losing social consent” for isolation if it does not immediately bring forward the relaxation of quarantine rules for the fully vaccinated, currently planned for August 16.
Business minister Paul Scully previously said self-isolating after being contacted by the app was a decision for individuals and employers, while another minister in the business department, Lord Grimstone of Boscobel, stressed in a letter to one large employer that the app was only an “advisory tool” and that people were not under any “legal duty”, The Times reported.
However, this is not official advice. Downing Street slapped down Scully and said it was “crucial” to self-isolate when told and businesses should be supporting employees to do so.
A No 10 spokeswoman said: “Isolation remains the most important action people can take to stop the spread of the virus.
“Given the risk of having and spreading the virus when people have been in contact with someone with Covid, it is crucial people isolate when they are told to do so, either by NHS Test and Trace or by the NHS Covid app.”
What are the current self-isolation rules?
NHS guidance says that people should self-isolate immediately if they have Covid-19 symptoms, test positive for the virus, live with someone with symptoms or has tested positive, or have been told to isolate by NHS Test and Trace or the NHS Covid-19 app.
People isolating should not go to school, work or public places, use public transport or taxis, go out for food or medicine, have visitors, or go out for exercise.
So anyone pinged by the app has to isolate?
It is not as simple as that. While there is a legal duty in England for people to self-isolate if they test positive or are contacted by NHS Test and Trace, this does not extend to the app.
So people who do not isolate after testing positive or being contacted by NHS Test and Trace can face fines of up to £10,000 – this does not apply to people being pinged.
The government has said this is because users of the official NHS Covid-19 contact tracing app are anonymous and “we cannot force them to self-isolate or identify them if they are not self-isolating”.
Also, Boris Johnson has said that isolation rules will be relaxed for a “small number” of fully-vaccinated critical workers including health and care workers.
The prime minister also said it was necessary to keep the isolation rules largely unchanged until August 16, when a testing regime will replace the requirement for fully-vaccinated contacts to isolate.
How does NHS Test and Trace work?
If you test positive for coronavirus, you will be contacted by contact tracers and asked to provide details of people you have been in close contact with and places you have visited.
In England, if you have come into contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19, you will be contacted and told to isolate for 10 days from your last contact with the person with Covid-19, even if you do not have symptoms.
The app uses Bluetooth from your smartphone to keep a log of others who are also using the app whenever they are in close proximity to you.
To be considered a close contact, it generally means having been within two metres of someone for 15 minutes or more, such as on a bus journey.