The British government has sought to ease food supply pressures in England by exempting more than 10,000 workers from quarantine rules that had led to staff shortages and empty shelves and fears of panic-buying.
In an announcement late Thursday following mounting pressure from increasingly vexed retailers, it outlined plans for daily COVID-19 testing of critical food industry workers that will effectively allow those who test negative to continue working even if they have been notified on their phones to self-isolate due to contact with someone with the virus.
The move, along with a limited relaxation of self-isolation rules in other key sectors and vital public services, including essential transport, the emergency services, and the energy industry, came amid growing concerns within the government of the impact of the so-called pandemic on many key sectors of the British economy.
Amid a resurgence of the virus across the UK, hundreds of thousands of people, including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, are having to self-isolate for 10 days after being advised by the National Health Service's test and trace app that they have come into close contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus.
It was primarily concerned over food supplies that drove the government's change in approach as more and more workers, including crucial delivery drivers, were having to self-isolate, leading to scenes of empty supermarket shelves and fears of panic-buying by anxious consumers.
The government said it has identified priority locations, including the largest supermarket distribution centers, where testing will begin this week. The program will be expanded to as many as 500 sites next week, encompassing providers of staple foods such as bread and dairy products.
“All of the people working in those key strategic sites, distribution depots, and those manufacturing facilities will be able to use this scheme, and probably well over 10,000 people," Environment Secretary George Eustice told Sky News on Friday.
The government's new policy was welcomed by retailers but many said the government must be prepared to take further action, potentially bringing forward its previously announced plan to change the self-isolation rules on Aug. 16.
On that date, the government has said it would exempt double-jabbed individuals from the self-isolation rules. That change comes nearly a month after most legal coronavirus rules in England were lifted.
The other nations of the UK — Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland — are being more cautious in lifting restrictions.
“It is absolutely vital that government makes up for lost time and rolls out this new scheme as fast as possible,” said Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium.
“Disruption is limited at the moment, and retailers are monitoring the situation closely.”
Alongside the measures to protect food supplies, the government published guidance on Thursday night setting out limited exemptions for fully vaccinated critical workers from 16 other sectors if their inability to work would have a “major detrimental impact” or risk national security.
However, the guidance has already led to some confusion within the sectors involved.
Under the new guidance, fully vaccinated employees providing what are deemed critical services would be able to keep working and avoid self-isolation if they have been named on a list kept updated by officials.
The government said the policy is not a “blanket exemption” for all employees in a sector — for instance, while railway signal operators on whom the network depends may be given an exemption, individual train drivers are unlikely to be.
“While the announcement of a process which may exempt select critical workers from self-isolation in England will be a relief to some businesses, it will leave many more still facing critical staff shortages and lost revenue as the number of people being asked to isolate remains high," said Hannah Essex, from the British Chambers of Commerce.
Many critics say the app has been unfairly singled out and that the widespread pinging has more to do with a sharp increase in infections the UK is recording as a result of the spread of the more contagious delta variant and the lifting of lockdown restrictions.
With daily infections predicted by the government to at least double to 100,000 this summer, the number of people being pinged by the app will inevitably grow, potentially to more than 1 million a week.