Workers in the food sector to be exempt from self isolation rules

Supermarket warehouse staff and others in the food supply chain will have access to daily testing under government plan

Workers in key sectors, and particularly in the food supply chain, will still be allowed to go to work if they have been told to self isolate by NHS test and trace so long as they test negative for coronavirus.

The new exemptions, which are expected to come into force this week, are in response to widespread concerns that critical businesses could be forced to close because of staff shortages caused by individuals being told they need to self isolate.

As part of the plan, the government will create up to 500 new testing centres to allow workers in supermarket warehouses and other food manufacturing businesses to get daily tests, allowing them to continue working if they have been told to self isolate or have been pinged by the NHS app.

Sajid Javid, the health secretary said: “As we manage this virus and do everything we can to break chains of transmission, daily contact testing of workers in this vital sector will help to minimise the disruption caused by rising cases in the coming weeks, while ensuring workers are not put at risk.”

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, welcomed the government’s response to the “unfolding pingemic”, which she said had already impacted shops and distribution centers.

“Retailers are working closely with government to identify hundreds of key distribution sites that will benefit from the new daily contact testing scheme,” she said, adding it was “absolutely vital that government makes up for lost time and rolls out this new scheme as fast as possible”.

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This latest scheme follows complaints from businesses that the previously announced extension scheme – through which named individuals would be allowed to continue attending the workplace on a case by case basis – was too limiting.

Currently, the government is not due to relax self-isolation restrictions until 16 August. 

However, during the first week of July, there were more than 500,000 alerts issued on the NHS Covid app in England and Wales asking people to stay home because they had come into contact with someone who had tested positive for coronavirus, and many employers are concerned that the numbers will only increase as the economy begins to reopen.

A number of high profile companies, including Marks and Spencer, Greene King and Morrisons, alongside organisations such as Unite, the TUC and UK Major Ports Group, have said the country faces a “pingdemic” unless the government relaxes self-isolation rules for vaccinated individuals.

Steve Turner, assistant general secretary of Unite, said his organisation had already received reports that “factories are on the verge of shutting and that at some sites, hundreds of staff are off work.”