The UK government has released a list of sectors where fully vaccinated workers may be exempt from isolation if they are told to quarantine after coming into close contact with a positive Covid case.
The 16 sectors include energy, civil nuclear, digital infrastructure, food production and supply, waste, water, veterinary medicines, essential chemicals, essential transport, medicines, medical devices, clinical consumable supplies, emergency services, border control, essential defence outputs, and local government.
The policy only applies to named workers who are fully vaccinated and it is not a “blanket exemption” for all employees in a sector – for instance, while railway signal operators on whom the network depends may be given an exemption, individual train drivers are unlikely to be.
The guidance is intended to operate until August 16, when a wider exemption from self-isolation will apply to fully vaccinated contacts.
Warnings of staffing shortages mounted as NHS figures showed 618,903 alerts were sent to users of the coronavirus app in England and Wales in the week to July 14, telling them they had been in close contact with someone who had tested positive.
Confederation of British Industry director general Tony Danker echoed the call, warning: “The current approach to self-isolation is closing down the economy rather than opening it up.”
Businesses have exhausted contingency plans to get in extra staff and are “at risk of grinding to a halt in the next few weeks”, he said.
Iceland’s managing director Richard Walker said the supermarket was having to hire 2,000 temporary workers to prepare for “the exponential rise in pinging”.
“The dramatic pictures that you might have seen in the media are isolated incidents and not widespread,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“But the people who should be panicking are the Government, and I believe that… the sooner they clear up this mess, and get retail workers and HGV drivers on to the key worker list, the better.”
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) urged ministers to “act fast” to issue exemptions, with the wider relaxation not scheduled until a month after most coronavirus laws ended in England.
That date “feels a long time away”, BRC chief executive Helen Dickinson said, as she warned stores are closing, hours are being reduced and consumers are facing reduced choice.
“I think what the most important thing for Government to do is to recognise that the current situation is untenable,” she told BBC Breakfast.
Meanwhile, officials announced a further 39,906 lab-confirmed Covid-19 cases in the UK and that an additional 84 people had died within 28 days of testing positive for Covid-19.
A lorry driver shortage was putting increased pressure on the country’s grocery supply chain and empty shelves were witnessed in some supermarkets across the country.
Mr Kwarteng had to tell businesses to “stick to the rules” after a food distribution company struggling with staff shortages advised workers who are pinged by the NHS app to take tests and continue working, in breach of Government advice.
Bidfood chief executive Andrew Selley defended his approach for delivery drivers to continue working if they have negative results as “appropriate and safe” for the “critical workers”.
“If they are pinged we ask them to take a PCR test. If that’s positive then clearly they’ll isolate, but if it’s negative we ask them to come back to work and we have a process of doing lateral flow tests daily away from their workplace, and if that’s negative they can proceed with their work,” he told Today.
Professor Ravi Gupta, a scientist advising the Government as part of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag), described it as a “mixed bag of measures which are creating confusion and havoc”.
“I think it is a little bit difficult to justify people doing self-isolation when in fact we have held huge sporting events with large amounts of transmission that have probably gone undetected,” he told Sky News.