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Business groups, food industry executives and farming leaders on Friday voiced scepticism over UK government plans to allow some critical workers to avoid self-isolation, warning that the updated guidance will not solve problems with staffing shortages.
Ministers confirmed on Thursday that some workers within 16 sectors, including the emergency services and transport would be able to skip self-isolation if contacted by NHS Test and Trace providing that they have been fully vaccinated.
Although the latest Covid-19 figures for the UK released on Friday showed a further fall in daily cases, separate data from the Office for National Statistics showed that one in 75 people had Covid-19 in England in the week to July 17, compared with one in 95 the week before.
To reduce the strain on some critical industries as Britain tackles its latest wave of the virus, the government also announced that around 500 food-related workplaces, including manufacturers and supermarket depots, would have access to a daily testing scheme that could allow up to 10,000 workers — regardless of their vaccination status — to avoid self-isolation.
Despite the government’s moves, Ranjit Singh Boparan, president of 2 Sisters Food Group which is the UK’s largest chicken producer, said his company was suffering underlying staff shortages — partly because of Brexit — that the latest measures would not resolve.
“The government needs to act immediately if it wants to avoid the most serious food shortages that this country has seen in over 75 years,” he said.
Tom Bradshaw, vice-president of the National Farmers Union, said the exemptions did not “go far enough to avoid disruption further down the chain”.
“We are hearing reports from farmers and growers who have robust Covid security plans in place, but are increasingly concerned about workforce shortages, especially as the rise in Covid cases coincides with the start of harvest and when the picking and packing of fruit and veg is in full swing,” he said.
The government has also been criticised for only permitting a limited number of exemptions within each sector.
For example, some within the retail industry argue supermarket workers should have been included, pointing out that in the early phase of the pandemic such staff were deemed critical workers.
“The food supply chain only works if teams are in place at each stage — no point in fixing the manufacturing and logistics issues if there is no one to put products on the shelves and serve customers,” argued Iceland’s managing director Richard Walker.
Environment secretary George Eustice defended the decision not to extend the exemption to supermarket workers, telling the BBC: “The main reason is that would be a really significant undertaking, as you’re talking then [about] thousands of different shops and many more people and we still want to maintain the test, trace and isolate system.”
Other industries pointed out similar discrepancies. In the transport sector, for example, rail signallers are considered essential while drivers and guards are not, potentially putting services at risk.
The concerns came as the UK’s train network began to feel the strain of staff shortages, with several operators cutting services and moving to new emergency timetables in response to dwindling staff numbers.
South Western Railway, one of the UK’s biggest rail operators, has cancelled many of its trains over the coming weekend, blaming “high levels of Covid-related absences”, while Southern, Thameslink, Avanti West Coast, and Great Western Railway are also planning reduced timetables.
Karen Dee, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, is among those who have questioned the practicality of the guidance for businesses, arguing that the requirement to seek individual approval for every isolation exemption “is simply unworkable”.
Under the guidance, businesses have been asked to provide a range of information to the relevant government departments, including the number of staff needing self-isolation, their roles and the effect of staff shortages.
“If you are asking for exemptions, it’s because you have got a problem with staff and you are not then going to want to do all of this admin”, said one industry leader within the energy sector. “It feels quite admin heavy for something that should be quite simple.”
Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe, Philip Georgiadis, Gill Plimmer, Jonathan Eley, Nic Fildes, Nathalie Thomas, Sarah Neville and Oliver Barnes in London