Train services to be reduced due to pingdemic, as unions attack ‘unclear’ exemptions plan

Plan to let some critical workers avoid self-isolation ‘confusing’, say union and business chiefs

Adam Forrest
Saturday 24 July 2021 01:32
No self-isolation exemptions for retail or hospitality staff, says minister

Rail operators plan to reduce train services from next week because of staff shortages caused by the “pingdemic”, warning that it could lead to overcrowding.

It comes as union chiefs and industry leaders criticised the government’s “confusing” plan to allow firms in critical sectors – including transport – to deploy daily testing as an alternative to self-isolation.

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (RMT), said it was not clear how rail companies would make use of the exemptions scheme – which requires firms to apply to the government with key “named” individuals.

“Nobody should be under any illusions about how fraught with difficulty and potential danger any system will be to operate in practice,” the union leader said.

“We are already hearing of planned reductions to rail services next week due to staff shortages,” said Mr Lynch, adding that it could lead to overcrowding in carriages.

Several rail operators have already had to cancel dozens of trains this month due to staff shortages. Figures released on Thursday showed numbers of workers across the UK “pinged” and told to stay home topped 600,000 in a week.

The TUC also said the plan published on Thursday night to allow a limited number of “named” critical workers in 16 key fields to avoid self-isolation were confusing.

Frances O’Grady, TUC general secretary, said: “The government needs to be clear about who it classes as critical workers. The current proposals don’t reflect the real world because businesses don’t exist in isolation – they are part of complex supply chains.”

She added: “The government has got into this mess by failing to consult unions and employers in advance of reopening the economy.”

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 for the economy.

Environment secretary George Eustice has also made clear a new testing scheme for the food industry will allow around 10,000 warehouse and distribution workers to avoid quarantine – not supermarket store staff.

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.”

Hannah Essex, co-executive director of the British Chambers of Commerce, said the current exemptions plan would leave many firms facing “critical staff shortages and lost revenue.”

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