The UK government has extended the exemption from self-isolation to around 10,000 “critical” workers amid scenes of empty supermarket shelves, fears of panic-buying, and disruption of public transport.
The scheme will run until Aug. 16, when all double-jabbed people can use negative tests to avoid self-isolation, but pressure is mounting on the government to bring forward the date.
Unions have criticised the government over its “piecemeal” approach to address the problems, saying the current proposals “don’t reflect the real world.”
In an announcement late Thursday following mounting pressure from increasingly vexed retailers, the government outlined plans for daily COVID-19 testing of some food industry workers and “critical workers” in other key sectors and vital public services that will effectively allow those who test negative to continue working even if they have been notified on their phones to self-isolate due to contact with someone with the virus.
Updated guidance said that “in the small number of situations where the self-isolation of close contacts would result in serious disruption to critical services, a limited number of named workers may be able to leave self-isolation under specific controls for the purpose of undertaking critical work only.”
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.
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.
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.
The guidance stressed the process “will not cover all or in most cases even the majority of workers in critical sectors,” suggesting that while people in crucial railway signalling roles could be covered by the exemption, it was less likely to be applied to individual drivers.
Environment Secretary George Eustice told Sky News on Friday that the exemption for the food industry covers “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,” but not supermarket staff.
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the umbrella Trades Union Congress, said the government needs to be clear about who it classes as critical workers.
“The current proposals don’t reflect the real world because businesses don’t exist in isolation—they are part of complex supply chains,” O’Grady said.
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt told Parliament on Thursday that 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.
This was echoed by former business secretary and current chairman of the Commons Science and Technology Committee Greg Clark.
The Tory MP told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme: “We know that on August 16 a new system will come in, in which you can take a test if you’re named as a contact and only isolate if you’re positive—I don’t see why we can’t begin that now on July 23 rather than wait.”
Former Conservative Party Leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith has previously questioned the logic behind self-isolation for vaccinated people if the vaccinates are believed to be working.
Commenting on vaccine passports for crowded venues, another measure due to start in September, Duncan Smith asked: “If … we think therefore that being double vaccinated means that you are protected, why are we still using the NHS test track and trace app to ping everybody and tell them to lock down if they’ve had two vaccines?”
PA and The Associated Press contributed to this report.