Employers warn of 'pingdemic' if self-isolation rules are not relaxed

Staff shortages caused by test and trace notifications could lead to business closures, as experts say the problem will ‘only grow’ as lockdown rules ease

A number of high-profile employers and unions have warned that businesses could be forced to close because of staff shortages caused by people being told to self-isolate by the NHS Covid-19 app.

As the last of the coronavirus restrictions in England ease today, 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.

Currently, the government is not due to relax self-isolation restrictions until 16 August. However, the number of people being told to self-isolate is already causing problems for some employers.

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.

Speaking to The Times, Steve Rowe, chief executive of Marks and Spencer, said this was already a “major issue across every industry at the moment".

"Our Covid cases are roughly doubling every week and the pinging level is about three to one of Covid cases, so we're seeing that growing exponentially”, he said. "If there's shortages we'll have to manage it by changing hours of stores."

Get more HR and employment law news like this delivered straight to your inbox every day – sign up to People Management’s PM Daily newsletter

The problem with staff being ‘pinged’ is affecting other sectors too. Unite’s assistant general secretary Steve Turner said the organisation had received reports that “factories are on the verge of shutting and that at some sites, hundreds of staff are off work.”

Turner warned that if a solution was not found, people could start deleting the NHS app “en masse to avoid isolation notices”, with potential public health consequences.

In a separate statement, Turner said Unite members at Nissan and other manufacturing, health, hospitality, retail and public transport businesses “live in fear of being pinged by the app” as it would mean they would have to isolate and be unable to work.

Lord Karan Bilimoria, president of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said the government needed to end the self-isolation period of 10 days for people who have had two vaccinations and provide a route out of isolation for those not yet fully vaccinated through daily lateral flow tests.

Ben Willmott, head of public policy at the CIPD, said one of the changes the government could consider would be a “test and release” system whereby individuals who have been asked to self-isolate can return to work if they subsequently have two negative PCR tests over five days.

He added that a CIPD poll had found nearly three in five (57 per cent) HR professionals said organisations faced staff shortages in the last month because of employees self-isolating after being contacted by NHS Test and Trace.

“This problem is only going to grow as the economy continues to open up after restrictions end, with the risk that disruption to organisations’ services and operations starts to have severe consequences for the public and business”, Willmott warned.

In the meantime, he advised that employers be flexible by freeing up staff from less business-critical areas and using temporary workers where possible. He also suggested firms continue to implement Covid-secure workplace policies, including the use of screens or barriers and mask wearing, despite the relaxation of official guidance.

“Employers should continue to encourage people to work from home where possible, to reduce the number of contacts their staff have in the workplace or when travelling to work”, he said. “For roles where employees need to be in the workplace, organisations should continue using measures to reduce staff contact, such as staggered start and finish times.”

Regardless of the inconvenience, Edward Obi, director of HR Hub Plus, urged employers to remember it was still a legal requirement for individuals to self-isolate when told to do so by NHS Test and Trace.

“If an employer is aware that an employee is positive or has been instructed to self-isolate via NHS Test and Trace, the employer could be putting the health and safety of other employees at risk if it allows or encourages employees to attend work,” he warned, suggesting that businesses should start identifying employees’ transferable skills to help mitigate the impact if they do get pinged.

Kevin Ryan, partner manager at Planday, also suggested that where appropriate, employers should provide staff schedules as soon as possible.

“If you’re imposing an irregular or unpredictable work schedule on your employees, it’s going to prove difficult for them to maintain any semblance of order in their own lives,” he explained. “If staff then do have to isolate, it will also become easier for other team members to step in.”