The government is “very concerned” about the numbers of people being pinged by the NHS app, the business secretary has told Sky News.
Speaking to Kay Burley, Kwasi Kwarteng said ministers were “monitoring” the situation and would be setting out a list of exempt critical workers “very soon”, with the expectation that it will be published on Thursday.
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“The list of exemptions will be quite narrow because, obviously, you have to draw the line somewhere,” he said.
Downing Street said earlier this week that it would not be “producing a list covering individual sectors”, with employers instead having to apply to government departments to allow workers to effectively circumvent the COVID-19 rules around isolation.
His comments come as retailers warn they are under “increasing pressure” to keep shelves fully stocked amid staff shortages caused by the “pingdemic”.
Industry bosses have warned that supply chains are “starting to fail” due to the number of workers, including lorry drivers and meat-processing staff, getting pinged by the NHS COVID-19 app.
Some shoppers have posted pictures on social media of empty supermarket shelves in parts of the country.
A Sainsbury’s spokesperson told Sky News: “While we might not always have the exact product a customer is looking for in every store, large quantities of products are being delivered to stores daily and our colleagues are focused on getting them onto the shelves as quickly as they can.”
The British Retail Consortium (BRC) has now urged the government to change self-isolation guidance to help address the issue.
Andrew Opie, director of food & sustainability at the BRC, said in-store staff and suppliers should be allowed to work even if they get an alert to isolate for 10 days.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council has also said that police response times are “under strain” as some forces deal with staffing shortages.
Schools have also been feeling the effects, with latest figures showing more than one million children in England were off school last week for coronavirus-related reasons.
The prime minister’s spokesman said on Tuesday that the exemption would be determined on a case by case basis, with employers having to apply to the relevant government department to see if their workers can continue to come into work after they are identified as close contacts of someone who has tested positive for COVID.
The spokesman said it could include certain workers in the food industry, utilities, border staff and the NHS, but there is no blanket exemption for sectors.
There have been growing calls in recent weeks for changes to the rules around isolation, amid warnings that the number of people being told to quarantine is having a crippling effect on businesses.
Being pinged by the app means you should isolate for 10 days – but unlike being contacted by Test and Trace, it is guidance rather than legally mandated.
Latest figures show more than 500,000 people were pinged by the app in the week up to 7 July, leading to concerns that millions could be forced out of work as coronavirus cases rise.
With case numbers expected to rise over the summer, there are fears that people will delete the app en masse to avoid being told to isolate.
There have been calls for the sensitivity of the app to be adjusted, but the government has ruled this out.
Ravi Gupta, a Cambridge University professor and member of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) which is advising the government, said a “mixed bag of measures” were “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 Kay Burley.
“So it’s a sort of half-hearted measure that is affecting the lives of many people, many of whom will be depending on their income on a daily basis, and for whom a week of isolation is disastrous.”
This was echoed by Labour’s Nick Thomas-Symonds, who told Sky News that the government has “come out of restrictions in the most reckless way possible”.
“They actually need to be looking at why infections are surging and looking at measures that would actually mitigate that,” the shadow home secretary said, citing compulsory mask-wearing and people working from home.
Boris Johnson, who is himself isolating after being identified as a close contact of the COVID-positive Health Secretary Sajid Javid, has said isolation is “one of the only shots we have got left in our locker to stop the chain reaction of the spread” of COVID.
“I’m afraid that at this stage it’s simply a consequence of living with COVID and opening up when cases are high in the way that we are,” he said.
From 16 August, under-18s and people who are fully vaccinated will no longer be told to isolate if they come into close contact with someone who has tested positive.
Instead, they will be encouraged to take a test. Anyone who tests positive will still be legally required to isolate, regardless of their vaccine status.