Ministers ‘flying by the seat of their pants’, manufacturing union warns
In a day of chaos, Downing Street was twice forced to slap down a minister who suggested that businesses could tell staff to ignore “pings” asking them to quarantine for 10 days as Covid contacts and indicated that pubs had been ruled out for “Covid passports”.
Industry organisations warned that absences due to self-isolation were growing “exponentially” in areas like food supply and manufacturing, with firms across the country closing their doors for lack of staff. Department for Education statistics showed that more than 1 million children in England were out of school last week for Covid-related reasons.
And there were complaints of a lack of clarity over the government’s scheme to allow double-vaccinated workers in key sectors to avoid self-isolation, as Downing Street said that there was no precise list of who would qualify.
The backlash from business came as daily deaths from coronavirus approached 100 for the first time since mid-March, with 96 fatalities and 46,558 positive tests reported across the UK. Deaths over the past seven days were 61 per cent up on the previous week and positive tests up 41 per cent over the same period.
While Boris Johnson has argued that the figures show the UK’s vaccination programme has weakened the link between infections, serious illness and death, businesses warn that half a million workers – including the PM and chancellor Rishi Sunak – have been forced to stay home over the past week after being identified as contacts of coronavirus patients.
Boris Johnson’s official spokesman suggested that supermarket workers could be among those told to ignore “pings”, alongside healthcare professionals, truck drivers, nuclear plant staff, border officers and utility workers.
But the spokesman said applications from employers would be considered on a “case-by-case” basis, and the government expected the final total exempted would reach only the “low tens of thousands” before all doubled-jabbed people are freed from the requirement to self-isolate on 16 August.
“It’s not a blanket exemption and my understanding is we’re not going to be producing a list covering individual sectors,” he said.
“It’s important that anyone who feels they’re in a critical industry or wants to raise potential issues because of isolation are able to contact departments and get advice and where necessary get exemptions.”
Rod McKenzie, of the Road Haulage Association, said the plan felt like it had been “thought up on the hoof without proper organisation or thought”.
“Truckers were classed as essential workers at the start of the pandemic; now they may be or may not be,” he said.
“It’s too confusing. The criteria isn’t clear and it risks being both unfair and devastating to an already creaking supply chain.”
Downing Street said that “the bulk” of employers likely to qualify for exemptions were already in touch with Whitehall departments to get clearances, which could apply to specific “business-critical” individuals or groups of workers with a particular function.
Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, which represents businesses in the food supply chain, said any scheme would have to be “simple and quick” or it would be ignored by bosses.
“What is the application process for businesses to use this?” he asked. “Who will qualify? Do you have to prove you are severely affected? How long will it take?”It does feel like this is another major-scale initiative being built on the hoof and we will try our best to help government to make it work, but time is not on our side.”
Karen Dee, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, said there was “a risk of unnecessary temporary closures” if staff such as air traffic controllers are not exempted.
And she warned: “Applying for each individual for an exemption from self-quarantine if they are ‘pinged’ is simply unworkable.”
A week after warning that the “pingdemic” was on the verge of shutting factories, the Unite union warned that continued “mixed messages” over self-isolation were putting manufacturing at risk.
“For plants to remain open now and in the months ahead, there needs to be faster testing, the continuation of free lateral flow tests for employers, a statutory sick pay rate that means people will actually stay off if ill and the extension of the furlough scheme,” said assistant general secretary Steve Turner.
“All these things are needed to get the country, which is now leading the world for infection rates, through the next wave of the virus.
“Unfortunately, the mixed messages emanating from government give a strong impression that ministers are flying by the seat of their pants.”
Downing Street was forced to step in after small business minister Paul Scully suggested that compliance with instructions to self-isolate from the NHS Covid was optional.
While it is a requirement by law to quarantine for 10 days if contacted by NHS Test and Trace officials, a “ping” from the app has no legal force.
And Mr Scully appeared to suggest that this was intended to allow workers to make “informed decisions” about whether or not to comply.
“The app is there to give, to allow you to make informed decisions,” he told Times Radio. “And I think by backing out of mandating a lot of things, we’re encouraging people to really get the data in their own hands to be able to make decisions on what’s best for them, whether they’re an employer or an employee.”
Meanwhile, 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”.
Mr Scully also appeared to rule out a requirement for Covid passports as a condition of entry to pubs, in the same way they will be used in nightclubs from September.
“We’re not saying crowded pubs at all,” he told Sky News.
“We’re not ruling anything out, but we’re not saying crowded pubs. We’re saying nightclubs and also larger ticketed events as well.”
Within hours, No 10 had issued a statement stressing that it was “crucial” that individuals isolate when told to do so, either by NHS Test and Trace or by the NHS Covid app.. This was “the most important action people can take to stop the spread of the virus”, said a spokesperson, adding: “Businesses should be supporting employees to isolate, they should not be encouraging them to break isolation.”
And Mr Johnson’s official spokesman said pubs had not been ruled out from inclusion in the Covid passport scheme, telling reporters: “I‘m not seeking to draw any specific restrictions around settings we’re considering at the moment.
“Nightclubs are simply where we have the most evidence because they are by design settings where individuals who don’t normally mix are in close proximity, it’s late at night there’s alcohol involved. So those are the risk factors.”