No 10 scrambles to extend self-isolation exemption scheme for critical workers as companies and councils warn of chaos


Empty supermarket shelves are seen on 23 July in London. Luke Pollard, shadow environment secretary, said food supply security is fundamental and empty shelves ‘show the system is failing’. Photograph: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

England is facing weeks of disruption to bin collection, transport and food supply due to staff self-isolating, companies and councils have warned, amid concerns the 16 August date to lift quarantine for the double-vaccinated could be delayed.

No 10 was on Friday scrambling to set up a system to let more key workers take daily tests rather than isolate for 10-days, over fears that large parts of the economy could grind to a halt over the so-called “pingdemic”.

Ministers initially said there would only be a narrow definition of critical workers allowed to be routinely excused from quarantine, with about 10,000 workers at 500 food distribution sites and some NHS and social care workers permitted to take daily tests instead of isolation.

On Friday night, No 10 suggested police, fire service staff, border staff, transport and freight could also be brought into the exemption scheme with a further 200 workplace testing sites, as rail bosses and councils warned of reduced services due to high numbers of isolating staff.

It came as the London mayor, Sadiq Khan, and business leaders urged the government to immediately end self-isolation for the fully vaccinated, with the former health secretary Jeremy Hunt warning No 10 risked “losing social consent” if it did not bring the relaxation forward.

The Scottish government announced its own scheme on Friday for key workers that will allow companies to apply for permission to exempt those who work in critical roles and where staff shortages could jeopardise essential services.

Some companies are reporting 15-20% of their staff absent because workers are being required to isolate for 10 days either with Covid or as a close contact of a confirmed case. More than 800,000 people in the UK had coronavirus last week and more than 600,000 in England and Wales were required to isolate by the NHS app.

Despite being the first in line for exemptions, several food industry groups and executives said the government was not moving quickly enough to tell companies their workers were exempt, with no list published yet and many businesses not sure if they would be included in the new daily testing scheme by the end of the day on Friday.

The British Meat Processors Association said the government urgently needed to publish more information giving “clear, unambiguous guidance on which sites are exempt, which job roles qualify for exemption and exactly how these new rules will be applied”.

“Our fear is that, if infections keep rising at the current rate, there will be so many non-exempt workers taken out of the system that, regardless of those protected ‘key sites’, the rest of the supply chain around them will start failing,” the group said.

Richard Harrow, chief executive of the British Frozen Food Federation, described the current situation as “worse than useless”, with confusion “continuing to pervade”.

There was also suspicion last night among some in the food industry that the government’s critical worker exemption system would not be ready by 16 August, casting doubt on whether No 10 really intends to allow double vaccinated people to escape isolation from that date. As it stands, the new exemption system will only need to apply for the next three weeks.

George Eustice, the environment secretary, hinted the 16 August deadline could be delayed on Friday, as he said the government had only announced the date to give people “some kind of indication” of when rules might change and added that it could still move “in either direction”. However, No 10 sources insisted that the government was still “working towards that date”.

The No 10 source described the four days of falling case numbers as an early encouraging sign, with 36,389 Covid cases and a further 64 deaths on Friday. But the situation was still critical in some parts of the country, with extra testing and public health support announced for seven local authorities across Tyne and Wear, Northumberland and County Durham, and five local authorities in the Tees Valley.

With most critical workers outside the health and food sectors still required to abide by isolation rules until 16 August at least, rail companies and councils warned that services would have to be cut back.

Firms with key workers in 16 sectors are also allowed to apply directly to government departments for exemptions from isolation for named individuals, but this will only be granted in serious and exceptional circumstances involving “major detrimental impact on the delivery of essential services” or “significant impact on national security, national defence, or the functioning of the state”.

The Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators, said that while companies were working to “minimise any disruption, there may be an impact on services” and the Department for Transport said it had agreed to reduced timetables. Transport for London said London Underground’s Circle line and Hammersmith and City line will be closed this weekend due to more than 300 staff self-isolating.

The Local Government Association (LGA), representing councils across England, said some councils are already having to shut down services because of staff shortages caused by the pingdemic.

One senior local government source said bin collection, libraries, park maintenance, street cleaning and pot hole maintenance could all be affected over the next three weeks, ahead of 16 August.

James Jamieson, chairman of the LGA, called on the government to clarify urgently what councils and employers should do if they want to request exemptions for their critical workers, and whether public health directors could have some powers.

“Residents will need to bear with us if they experience disruption to some services, if councils are forced to prioritise services that protect the most vulnerable in their communities,” he said.

Luke Pollard, shadow environment secretary, said security of the food supply is fundamental and empty shelves “show the system is failing”.

“The government caused this chaos by recklessly releasing all restrictions at once in the face of the Johnson variant, hitting the accelerator while flinging off the seatbelt,” he said.

“It’s right that some critical workers in the food supply sector may be exempt if fully vaccinated and, crucially, tested daily – but we must be cautious given the surging transmission rate.

“Labour warned against removing all restrictions in one go and we want to see a return of mandatory mask wearing in shops and the continuation of workplace testing. The rushed plan ministers have now published looks like a bureaucratic nightmare for businesses, while being unlikely to be sufficient. They have a right to be furious.”

The government has told businesses that they need to get in touch with their relevant government departments if they want named key workers to be excused, with an email address supplied for them to contact. But one company involved with contacting Department of Food, Environment and Rural Affairs (Defra) said it was mired in red tape, with officials requiring hugely complicated detail before exemption requests would be considered.

A source at Defra said five major supermarkets had already been contacted to say they could start going ahead with moving to a daily Covid testing regime for staff, with testing centres in operation at 15 of the most critical sites. A spokesperson said: “We have not made the list of prioritised businesses public at this stage to protect commercial interests. Sites are in the process of being contacted over the coming days.”

However, industry groups said many companies had not yet been contacted and the system was not due to be up and running fully until next week at the earliest, raising the prospect of more empty shelves in food shops over the weekend.