No 10 urged shoppers not to panic-buy, as supermarkets, haulage firms and manufacturers reported difficulties keeping operations going, as the numbers of workers told to stay home in the so-called “pingdemic” topped 600,000 in a week.
On Thursday night the government set out how a limited number of critical workers will be spared self-isolation if “pinged” by the NHS app and identified as a contact of a coronavirus case.
The new guidance only says that “a limited number of named workers” may be able to ignore the 10-day quarantine rules, if their self-isolation “would result in serious disruption to critical services”.
The policy only applies to named workers if their employer has received a letter from the relevant government department. “This is not a blanket exemption for all workers in a sector,” the guidance said.
The guidance lists 16 sectors – including energy, civil nuclear, digital infrastructure, food production and supply, waste, water, essential transport, medicines, medical devices, emergency services, border control, essential defence and local government.
But government officials will have to “agree the roles and workplaces that are likely to meet the criteria” for the self-isolation exemption in these areas “on a daily basis”.
Separately, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced a new testing scheme for food industry workers – allowing staff deemed critical to the supply chain to avoid self-isolation if “pinged”.
Following an emergency meeting with supermarket bosses on Thursday, ministers said sites for daily testing would be set up this week – including at the biggest supermarket distribution centres – to allow staff to keep coming into work if they test negative.
It comes as BP was forced to close a number of petrol stations as supplies of fuel dried up and Iceland stores recruiting 2,000 temporary workers to fill in for isolating staff.
A survey for manufacturing body Make UK found that 77 per cent of companies had been impacted by “pingdemic” absences, with 13 per cent saying some production has been stopped and almost one in 10 saying they had lost as many as a quarter of their staff.
And the Road Haulage Association’s director Rod McKenzie said that, with 20,000 pinged drivers added to an existing shortfall of 100,000 caused by lack of recruitment and Brexit, “you’ve got a recipe for chaos, and chaos is what we’re now seeing unfolding in front of our eyes”.
But the government stuck fast to its 16 August timetable for freeing double-vaccinated adults from the requirement to quarantine for 10 days if they are contacted by NHS Test and Trace or “pinged” as a contact by the smartphone app.
Earlier on Thursday, business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng sparked alarm by suggesting the delay might have to be extended beyond that date, saying he had his “fingers crossed” the relaxation would be able to go ahead as planned.
With reports of empty supermarket shelves and silent production lines, CBI director-general Tony Danker warned: “The current approach to self-isolation is closing down the economy rather than opening it up.
“This is surely the opposite of what the government intended. Businesses have exhausted their contingency plans and are at risk of grinding to a halt in the next few weeks.”
Mr Danker said the “vast majority” of businesses would support bringing forward the 16 August date and putting in place effective Covid safety measures at work to prevent spread.
Ian Wright, head of the Food and Drink Federation, told the government to “pull their fingers out,” adding: “We need to get this sorted soon, or what will happen is that people will vote with their fingers and turn off the app.”
Make UK chief executive Stephen Phipson said: “The impact on manufacturing continues to rapidly increase and there remains an inconsistency of government policy that allows non-vaccinated people in nightclubs while those who have had both jabs are asked to isolate. We would urge government to address this by bringing forward the planned August date in order to keep the economy open.”
And Mr Johnson faced pressure to bring the date forward from within his own party, with prominent lockdown-sceptic Mark Harper telling the House of Commons: “The danger is large numbers of people will either delete or stop listening to the app and then we get to 16 August they won’t be getting the advice to take a PCR test and we will have actually made ourselves less safe and less well-protected.”
Meanwhile, public health experts suggested that the self-isolation requirement could be dropped now and replaced by daily tests.
Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia, said: “If you haven’t been vaccinated and you haven’t had a double vaccine, then the risks are higher and I can see some value in continuing with (self-isolating) but certainly not if you’ve been double vaccinated or have had a natural infection in the last six or nine months.”
And King’s College London visiting professor in pharmaceutical medicine, Dr Penny Ward, said it would be “very reasonable” to allow double-vaccinated people identified as contacts to keep on working, so long as PCR tests were negative.
“In the early epidemic, when there was limited access to testing, and vaccines were not available, it was reasonable to advise individuals in contact with a case to self-isolate until a time at which they would be unlikely to be a risk to others,” said Dr Ward.
“However in the new post-vaccinated world, not only are these individuals less likely to become infected in any case, but also would be less likely to transmit even if infected.”
But other leading medics warned the public must not give up on self-isolation, at a time when daily positive test rates stand at 39,906 and 84 deaths from coronavirus were reported over 24 hours in the UK.
Dr Stephen Griffin, associate professor at the University of Leeds’ School of Medicine, said: “One cannot help but perceive a growing attempt to minimise the impact of infection here in the UK, what with the dissolution of school bubbles, talk of turning the app down, or even off, and exempting people from contact tracing.
“If the government and industry are upset or inconvenienced by people having to isolate, then might I politely suggest that they deal with the root of the issue rather than merely ignoring the fact that we have essentially created this latest wave ourselves as a result of not coupling the roadmap to the vaccine programme.”
The No 10 spokesperson said Mr Johnson continued to urge the public to comply with instructions to isolate.
“Isolation remains one of the most important levers we have in tackling the virus, and still plays an incredibly useful role in reducing the transmission rates and breaking chains of transmission,” said the spokesperson.
“We accept there’s a large number of people who have been asked to isolate as a result of rising case numbers. It was always going to be the case with rising case numbers that more people would be asked to isolate.
“Anybody who is asked to do so should isolate.”