Government announces limited exemptions from self-isolation rules

Specific individuals in critical roles will now be allowed to break isolation to attend work, but experts warn against ‘bullying’ staff into going back

A limited number of essential workers may be allowed to leave self-isolation to attend work under new government efforts to prevent disruption to public services.

The new exception, announced yesterday evening, will allow some critical workers to go into work in exceptional circumstances where there would otherwise be a “major detrimental impact on essential services” and instead take daily Covid tests.

These impacts included significant loss of life or casualties, or an immediate risk to defence or security.

“A limited number of critical workers may be informed by their employer, following advice from the relevant government department, that they may be able to leave self-isolation to attend work,” the government said.

The government did not specify which professions were considered essential under the exemption – other than railway signalers and air traffic controllers – but has said the exemption would only apply to named individuals who have been fully vaccinated and were asymptomatic.

Workers who have Covid-19 symptoms or who had tested positive for Covid-19 would not be exempt, and workers with exemptions would only be allowed to break their isolation to attend work.

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The measures are designed to be short term until the self-isolation restrictions are relaxed on 16 August, the government stated.

Health and social care secretary Sajid Javid said: “Throughout this global pandemic, critical workers across the country have been doing the extraordinary by delivering vital services – from policing the streets to keeping our transport links open.

“These individuals form the backbone of many of our most vital services and, as we learn to live with this virus, it’s right we do everything in our power to protect services from disruption by allowing our fully vaccinated critical workers to keep doing their important work.”

The news comes as high-profile employers and unions warned that businesses could be forced to close because of staff shortages due to the NHS Covid-19 app telling them to self-isolate.

Christina McAnea, Unison’s general secretary, said changes should have been managed better, and that within the care sector, the change could mean staff are pressured into coming back into work. 

“Rather than a hell-for-leather rush, changes to restrictions should have been managed sensibly in stages. Any moves towards changing isolation rules for health and care workers must be voluntary. Staff shouldn’t be bullied to come back,” she said. 

"In the care sector, many reckless employers will see it as a green light to pressure staff who’ve been pinged to come into work.”

McAnea urges that a reduction in isolation must come with improved safety measures, including enhanced PPE, and regular testing of staff during office hours. 

Eligible employers will be sent a letter, the government stated, outlining the steps they and their employees must follow, which will include social distancing and face coverings.