Business leaders have demanded solutions from the government to the problem of hundreds of thousands of workers having to self-isolate after being “pinged” by the NHS Covid-19 app.
They hit out at ministers’ handling of the lifting of most coronavirus restrictions in England and pointed to issues developing such as keeping stores open and shelves stocked.
In a call with business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng on Tuesday, more than a dozen trade associations were part of a group that raised concerns over the spiralling numbers affected by receiving an alert on the app after coming into contact with an infected person.
Although companies can apply to the government for exemptions from self-isolation rules for “critical” workers in sectors including food and energy, Downing Street has insisted the number must be kept to a bare minimum.
Several business leaders on the “pretty animated” call with Kwarteng said his message was not well received after he attempted to portray the self-isolation advice and the NHS Covid-19 app as a problem of communication rather than policy, according to people briefed on the conversation.
Business groups want the government to drop the need for workers to self-isolate for 10 days if pinged by the app, and instead bring in a system of regular testing.
Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium trade body said the “pingdemic” was putting pressure on store companies’ ability to maintain opening hours and keep shelves stocked.
“Government needs to act fast,” he added. “Retail workers and suppliers, who have played a vital role throughout this pandemic, should be allowed to work provided they are double-vaccinated or can show a negative Covid test, to ensure there is no disruption to the public’s ability to get food and other goods.”
CBI director-general Tony Danker told Kwarteng the government had ended up with a “compromise” reopening of the economy on July 19 as it attempted to please libertarian Conservative MPs as well as health advisers worried about the surge in cases of the Delta variant of coronavirus, said people familiar with the call.
Danker called for a “confident” and “balanced” economic reopening that would bring forward the August 16 date at which the government has said people who have had two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine will no longer have to self-isolate and can instead undergo regular testing. He also sought the maintenance of Covid safety measures to boost the confidence of consumers and workers in returning to shops and offices.
Kwarteng said the exemption list for critical workers would be “very narrow”, said people with knowledge of the call. “He doubled down on the policy,” added one. “He was definitely managing expectations down.”
In the transport sector, for example, government officials have warned that while air traffic control and rail signal workers will be exempt, others, including pilots, will not.
Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, became the latest politician to enter self-isolation after one of his children tested positive for Covid-19. Prime minister Boris Johnson, chancellor Rishi Sunak and health secretary Sajid Javid have all been isolating since the weekend.
Downing Street said it was in discussions with all relevant industries and would draw up a list of exemptions to the self-isolation rules as quickly as possible.
The business department said: “The exemptions are only intended for a limited number of named workplaces that are struggling with staffing and where there will be a significant impact on essential services, national security, national defence or the functioning of the state. This is not a blanket exemption for any sector or role.”
The CBI declined to comment.
The issue of large numbers of workers having to self-isolate was raised in the House of Commons by Labour leader Keir Starmer, who accused ministers of “making up the rules as they go along”.
Prime minister Boris Johnson said self-isolation was a “vital tool” in the country’s defences against coronavirus. “I apologise to everybody in business up and down the land, in all kind of services, public sector and otherwise, who are experiencing inconvenience,” he added.
Several industries flagged major labour shortages fuelled by how workers were having to self-isolate.
Trade body UKHospitality said on Wednesday that of 350 businesses it surveyed, all had staff vacancies, with 84 per cent needing front-of-house staff and two-thirds searching for chefs.
More than 60 per cent were also struggling with delayed deliveries and had reduced product lines, it added.
Nick Collins, chief executive of the café-bar chain Loungers, said six of its 175 sites were closed because of staff self-isolating but that it was now experiencing more problems from workers testing positive themselves.
Additional reporting by Alice Hancock and Jonathan Eley in London