UK business groups skeptical of isolation exemption plans

Updates on the economic impact of the coronavirus

On Friday, business groups, food industry executives and agricultural executives expressed skepticism about the UK government’s plans to allow some essential workers to avoid self-isolation, warning that the guidelines put up-to-date will not solve staff shortage issues.

Ministers confirmed on Thursday that some workers in 16 sectors, including emergency services and transport, could avoid self-isolation if contacted by NHS Test and Trace provided they have been fully vaccinated.

Although the latest Covid-19 figures for the UK released on Friday showed a further drop in daily cases, separate data from the Office for National Statistics showed that one in 75 people had Covid-19 in England in the week before July 17, compared to one in 95 the week before.

To reduce pressure on some critical industries as Britain tackles its latest wave of the virus, the government has also announced that around 500 food-related workplaces, including manufacturers and depots of supermarkets, would have access to a daily testing program that could allow up to 10,000 workers – regardless of their immunization status – to avoid self-isolation.

Despite government action, Ranjit Singh Boparan, chairman of 2 Sisters Food Group, the UK’s largest chicken producer, said his business was suffering from an underlying staff shortage – in part due to Brexit – which the latest measures would not solve.

“The government must act immediately if it is to avert the most severe food shortages this country has experienced in more than 75 years,” he said.

Tom Bradshaw, vice president of the National Farmers Union, said the exemptions did not go “far enough to avoid disruption further down the chain.”

“We are hearing reports from farmers and producers who have put in place strong Covid safety plans, but are increasingly concerned about labor shortages, especially as the increase in cases of Covid coincides with the start of the harvest and when the picking and packaging of fruits and vegetables is in full swing, ”he said.

The government has also been criticized for allowing only a limited number of exemptions in each sector.

For example, some members of the retail industry argue that supermarket workers should have been included, pointing out that at the start of the pandemic these workers were seen as essential workers.

“The food supply chain only works if there are teams in place at every step – there is no point in solving manufacturing and logistics issues if there is no one there to put the products on the shelves and serving customers, ”explained the managing director of Iceland. Richard walker.

Environment Secretary George Eustice defended the decision not to extend the exemption to supermarket workers, telling the BBC: “The main reason is that this would be a really big business, as you say then. [about] thousands of different stores and a lot more people and we still want to keep the test, trace and isolation system going. “

Rail operators have questioned why rail marshals are included in the isolation exemption program while train conductors and guards are not © Dan Kitwood / Getty

Other industries have reported similar discrepancies. In the transport sector, for example, railway flaggers are seen as essential while drivers and guards are not, potentially putting services at risk.

The concerns came as the UK rail network began to feel pressure from staff shortages, with several operators cutting services and switching to new emergency schedules in response to downsizing.

South Western Railway, one of the UK’s largest rail operators, has canceled many of its trains over the coming weekend, accusing “high levels of Covid-related absences”, while Southern, Thameslink, Avanti West Coast and Great Western Railway also have reduced schedules.

Karen Dee, CEO of the Airport Operators Association, was among those who questioned the practicality of the guidance for businesses, saying the requirement to seek individual approval for each isolation exemption “is simply impractical ”.

As part of these guidelines, companies were asked to provide a range of information to relevant ministries, including the number of employees needing to self-isolate, their roles and the effect of staff shortages.

“If you’re asking for exemptions, it’s because you have a personnel problem and then you’re not going to want to do all of this administrative work,” said an industry leader in the energy sector. “It seems pretty heavy on administration for something that should be pretty straightforward.”

Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe, Philip Georgiadis, Gill Plimmer, Jonathan Eley, Nic Fildes, Nathalie Thomas, Sarah Neville and Oliver Barnes in London

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