Downing Street has urged people to isolate if they are “pinged” by the NHS app, after the business minister, Paul Scully, suggested individuals and employers could choose to ignore the instructions.
No 10 said employers “should not be encouraging” workers to ignore isolation warnings, even though the app’s instructions are not legally enforceable, unlike contact from NHS test and trace, which is a legal requirement.
The comments come amid a furious backlash from Conservative MPs over the use of the app, which they claim is crippling businesses. The latest figures released by the NHS show more than half a million people were contacted and told to self-isolate between 1 and 7 July, the highest weekly figure since the app launched.
On Monday Boris Johnson said that critical workers would be exempt, and would be allowed to use regular testing instead, provided they were fully vaccinated against Covid. Although No 10 later said it would not provide a full list.
Business leaders and trade unions said it was “confused and chaotic messaging” and urged further consultation on the policy.
In comments likely to sow more public concern over the use of the app, Scully told Times Radio: “It’s important to understand the rules. You have to legally isolate if you are … contacted by test and trace, or if you’re trying to claim isolation payments.”
But he said there was a different legal basis to the app which he said was “to allow you to make informed decisions”. He added: “And I think by backing out of mandating a lot of things, we are 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 are employer or an employee.”
Scully said people should still use the app to check into venues, which he said had saved an estimated 8,000 lives. “So it’s a really useful tool in our armoury alongside the vaccination programme, but obviously it’s up to individuals and employers,” he said.
A Whitehall source also confirmed that the investment minister, Gerry Grimstone, had written to at least one major manufacturing employer, first reported by the Times, telling them that the app’s instructions to isolate were only advisory.
A No 10 spokesperson said: “It is crucial people isolate when they are told to do so, either by NHS test and trace or by the NHS Covid app.
“Businesses should be supporting employees to isolate, they should not be encouraging them to break isolation.”
The shadow health minister Justin Madders said: “The government is making it up as they go along.
“If this is a true change in approach on the app, why didn’t the prime minister set this out last night? Yet again there is more confusion and incompetence from the heart of government at the expense of public health. They need to get a grip.”
The Institute of Directors, one of the UK’s leading lobby groups, said the confusion was damaging business. “Yet again the reopening of the economy is being impeded by poor communication and mixed messages,” said its policy director, Dr Roger Barker.
“The latest guidance for businesses clearly states that, by law, businesses must not allow a self-isolating worker to come to work. But, at the same time, ministers are briefing the media that the app is merely advisory.”
James Lowman, the chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, said: “We are really frustrated at hearing different messages privately and publicly, and different ministers and spokespeople contradicting one another.”
The trade body has advised its members that staff who are pinged should use their judgment, get tested and come to work if the result is negative.
“It is ludicrous and unacceptable that business organisations are having to interpret the rules and find a way through the confusion being created by the government,” Lowman said.
Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the Trades Union Congress said: “This is an almighty mess and what happens when you don’t consult with unions and employers. The last thing we need right now is more confused and chaotic messaging.”
Ministers have shelved proposals to urgently overhaul the contact-tracing app to make it less sensitive to contact with potential positive cases.
Johnson and the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, are currently isolating after the health secretary, Sajid Javid, tested positive for the coronavirus. The pair have a legal duty to isolate because they were contacted by the official test-and-trace service.