The government has ruled out extending the special exemptions from self-isolation rule to hospitality or retail sectors, despite concerns the “pingdemic” is reaching crisis point.
Environment secretary George Eustice has also made clear a new “test and release” scheme for the food industry will focus on warehouse and distribution workers – not supermarket store staff.
Around 10,000 workers deemed critical to Britain’s food supply chain will be able to avoid quarantine if “pinged” by the NHS Covid app – so long as they test negative as part of a new, daily testing regime.
Retail and hospitality chiefs also keen for staff to avoid self-isolation through regular testing, before wider rule changes come into force on 16 August. But Mr Eustice said on Friday that the scheme would not be extended.
The environment secretary told Sky News: “The reason we’ve made a special exception for food is for very obvious reasons – we need to make sure that we maintain our food supply, we will never take risks with our food supply.”
The minister added: “When it comes to other sectors, yes, of course, the fact that they are also carrying high absence levels is causing some stress for them and making it more difficult.”
Mr Eustice said: “You also have to bear in mind why we’re doing this and we are trying to still just dampen the pace and the velocity at which this infection is spreading because we have to keep a very close eye on those hospitalisations.”
Asked why supermarket staff were not included in exemptions, Mr Eustice said it was easier to manage staff shortages on a store level.
The cabinet minister told BBC’s Breakfast: “Well, the main reason is that would be a really significant undertaking, as you’re talking then thousands of different shops, and many more people, and we still want to maintain the test, trace and isolate system.
“We know that the most important thing is to ensure that those main arteries in our food supply chain keep working, that the lorries keep going from depots to get goods to store and that the food manufacturers can continue to manufacture the goods to get it to the depots.
“When you get to store level, of course, yes, there will be some difficulties, they will have staff shortages. But it is easier to manage at that level.”
Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, welcomed the government’s announcement of exemptions for food supply chain workers.
He told Times Radio: “I think it’s important because the interruptions in supply ... and concerns that it might get worse were beginning to grow quite fast.”
Mr Wright added: “I must confess I’m still a little bit mystified as to why the government doesn’t want to bring [the end of the self-isolation requirement on August 16] forward and I think it would be useful to know on exactly which grounds the hiatus is justified.”
Some in the food industry said it was not yet clear exactly who would be able to access the “test and release” scheme. The British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF) described the move as “worse than useless”.
“The government announcement last night that parts of the supply chain will be allowed to test and release workers that are pinged by track and trace only goes part of the way,” said Richard Harrow, the BFFF’s chief executive.
“It shows that yet again government does not understand how connected the food supply chain is, only opening part is unlikely to solve the overall issue. Plus, who is in and who is out, who decides and how do they decide? Confusion continues to pervade and I have been advised no list until Monday.”
The founder and owner of one of the country’s largest food producers said the industry remains at “crisis point”. Ranjit Singh Boparan, of the 2 Sisters Food Group, said the government needed to do more or face the “most serious food shortages that this country has seen in over 75 years”.
Meanwhile, the government revealed new guidance allowing “named” individuals in 16 critical sectors – including essential transport, emergency services and energy – to get special exemptions self-isolation.
The new guidance says that “a limited number of named workers” may be able to ignore the 10-day quarantine rules if self-isolation would result in serious disruption to “critical services”.
But the policy only applies to named workers if their employer has received a letter from the relevant government department. “This is not a blanket exemption for all workers in a sector,” the guidance said.
Responding to criticism that the complexity of exemptions for critical sectors could make the scheme “unworkable”, Mr Eustice said the exemptions were deliberately “limited”.
The environment secretary told the Today programme: “Well, look, it is a limited exemption and we don’t pretend otherwise. We’ve gone for quite a generous intervention for the food supply chain where they won’t have to provide names
He added: “In these other sectors, we are trying to target this at a smaller number of people.”
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