NHS workers may not have to self-isolate if pinged by Covid app due to fears of staffing crisis

Health chiefs appeal for relaxation in rules ‘as soon as possible’ – as business bosses warn economy could seize up from staff shortages

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
,Adam Forrest
Friday 09 July 2021 21:02
Coronavirus in numbers

Ministers are considering a special exemption for NHS staff from having to self-isolate if they are “pinged” by the NHS Covid app, due to worries of a staffing crisis in hospitals.

The latest weekly figures show that the number of app alerts soared by more than 60 per cent to a record 350,000 in England – with millions of Britons expected to be asked to stay at home at some point this summer.

The government is considering reducing the sensitivity of the app after warnings that the economy could “grind to a halt” with increasing numbers of employees out of work – a move Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer likened to “removing the batteries from a smoke alarm”.

NHS Providers urged ministers to create an opt-out for health workers “as soon as possible” to allow staff to ignore the app alerts, before a wider relaxation is introduced on 16 August allowing fully-vaccinated adults to avoid quarantine.

A Downing Street spokesperson said the government was looking at exempting NHS staff “ahead of step 4” of England’s roadmap out of lockdown on 19 July.

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive at NHS Providers, told The Independent: “We think NHS staff should be able to carry on working even if they are pinged by the app – so long as they are double vaccinated.”

She added: “The government should bring that in as soon as possible. I can’t see any reason to delay. NHS trusts are struggling with the number of staff having to isolate – anecdotally we’re seeing significant numbers off.”

Ms Cordery said some staff have even deleted the app from their phone to avoid being forced to stay at home. “We’ve picked up on the fact some staff are deleting the app, but it’s not happening on a big, widespread scale at this point.”

Medical staff are already exempted from self-isolating if they are pinged after coming into contact with a Covid patient while wearing appropriate PPE at work.

Asked if this exemption could be extended for NHS staff to cover all contacts, either in or outside the workplace, a No 10 spokesperson said: “That is something we are looking at ahead of step 4.”

The health service is already facing serious concerns over unsustainable demand on A&E departments and ambulances, as the government presses ahead with the end of restrictions on 19 July.

NHS Covid is used to enter venues

The government is considering “tuning” the sensitivity of the app to reduce the number of people it pings, UK Health Security Agency boss Jenny Harries has confirmed.

It is understood Whitehall officials are looking at tweaking how close and how long a person has to be in close contact with someone before the app send an alert.

Sir Keir Starmer said reducing the sensitivity of the Covid app would “weaken the defences we have”.

The Labour leader blamed the problem on Boris Johnson’s decision to lift all restrictions on 19 July and allow the virus to “surge” this summer.

“I’m equally worried by the fact that, driven I think by the likely high numbers told to self-isolate, the stories of people deleting the app altogether.”

Sir Keir Starmer says tweaking the app would ‘weaken Covid defences’

Transport secretary Grant Shapps pleaded with people not to ignore the NHS Covid app if they are pinged and advised to self-isolate.

Travel quarantine restrictions will be lifted for amber list countries for people in England on 19 July – a month before rules on self-isolation are relaxed, raising fears many will delete the app rather than risk having to scrap a holiday.

“You shouldn’t ignore this because it is vital information,” said Mr Shapps. “People should want to know if they have been in contact with somebody with coronavirus. You don’t want to be spreading it around. It can still harm people.”

It comes as retail, hospitality and haulage bosses have warned that Britain’s economy could seize up this summer if millions of workers are forced into self-isolation by the app.

The Road Haulage Association (RHA) called for an exemption from the rules for hauliers – warning about the staffing crisis ahead from an industry already suffering from a shortage of about 60,000 drivers.

Duncan Buchanan, policy director at the RHA, said there was “an increasing problem” with drivers told to stay at home by the Covid app. “We’re calling on the government to have vaccinated drivers released [from isolation], if they test [negative],” he said.

The hospitality industry has also been badly hit by the growth in Covid cases and contacts forced to stay off work. Roughly 33 per cent of staff were in self-isolation this week, according to trade body UKHospitality.

“We’ve seen around one in three of our workers in self-isolation, up from one in five last week, so it’s getting worse,” said Kate Nicholls, UKHospitality’s chief executive.

A third of hospitality staff are off work after being pinged

Ms Nicholls called for the 16 August date to be brought forward, and also urged the government to allow hospitality workers to turn the app off while at work in a similar way to health workers.

“It’s vital we make changes and get this right as soon as possible. Otherwise this problem is going to have a drag on economic growth. You’re not going to see the bounce-back.”

The retail sector has also warned of a potential crisis ahead. An industry source told The Independent some supermarkets were struggling to get enough staff at their distribution centres.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said staffing shortages will “only get worse” in the next five weeks.

“The government should pull forward the 16 August date so that people who are fully vaccinated or have a negative test are not forced to needlessly quarantine when they are contacted.”

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