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Covid testing scheme will allow ‘pinged’ food industry workers avoid isolation

Covid testing scheme will allow ‘pinged’ food industry workers avoid isolation
Test and release scheme will ‘minimise disruption’ from pingdemic, says health secretary

Boris Johnson’s government has announced a new testing scheme for food industry workers, allowing staff deemed critical to the supply chain to avoid self-isolation if “pinged” by the NHS Covid app.

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.

Environment secretary George Eustice said: “We are working closely with industry to allow staff to go about their essential work safely with daily testing.”

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) said the scheme would be rolled out to hundreds of sites next week, med opptil 500 sites in scope.

Health secretary Sajid Javid said the daily contact testing of workers in the food sector “will help to minimise the disruption caused by rising cases in the coming weeks, while ensuring workers are not put at risk”.

It comes as the government revealed new guidance allowing “named” individuals in critical jobs to avoid self-isolation, as business leaders warned that the economy could “grind to a halt” due to the so-called pingdemic.

The new guidance says that “a limited number of named workers” may be able to ignore the 10-day quarantine rules if self-isolation would result in “serious disruption to critical services”.

But 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.

Supermarkets, haulage firms and manufacturers have reported difficulties keeping operations going, as the numbers of workers told to stay home after they were pinged topped 600,000 in a week.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said she welcomed the government’s plan to expand testing to release food industry staff from self-isolation.

“Retailers are working closely with government to identify hundreds of key distribution sites that will benefit from the new daily contact testing scheme,” said Ms Dickinson.

It is absolutely vital that government makes up for lost time and rolls out this new scheme as fast as possible. Government will need to continue to listen to the concerns of the retail industry in the coming days and must be prepared to take further action if necessary.”

Ministers have ignored pleas from Tory MPs to bring forward planned changes to self-isolation rules. The government is sticking to its 16 August timetable for freeing double-vaccinated adults from the requirement to quarantine if they are “pinged” by the app.

Lockdown-sceptic Mark Harper told the 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. We will have actually made ourselves less safe.”