Self-isolation rules will be relaxed for a “small number” of fully vaccinated critical workers, Boris Johnson has announced.
The Prime Minister has said that some workers will be exempt from having to quarantine if they are ‘pinged’ by the NHS Track and Trace app, after coming under pressure over the so-called “pingdemic”.
The move is intended to free thousands of critical staff from being forced into house arrest if they are identified as close contacts of coronavirus cases.
It comes after more than 520,000 self-isolation alerts were sent to NHS Covid app users in the week up to 7 July, up 46 per cent on the previous week.
At least half a dozen industry bodies from healthcare, transport, retail and manufacturing sectors have warned of staff shortages caused by the alerts, with some companies reportedly missing 20 per cent of their workforce.
But on Monday (19 July) Mr Johnson resisted widespread calls to announce a more wide-reaching change to the rules to cut down the number of people forced into isolation, as he addressed the public from his own quarantine on the so-called “freedom day” in England.
The PM acknowledged it is “frustrating” but said the public had to accept increasing numbers would be told to isolate “as a consequence of living with Covid”, saying those identified as contacts are at least five times more likely to be infected than others.
Who is exempt from self-isolation?
Speaking virtually from his Chequers retreat, Mr Johnson said it was necessary to keep self-isolation rules largely unchanged until 16 August when a new testing regime will replace the current rules for full-vaccinated contacts to quarantine if they are ‘pinged’.
However, the PM confirmed that a small number of key workers who have received both doses of a coronavirus vaccine will be freed from the isolation rules if they are contacted by the app.
Workers who are exempt include staff in the following sectors:
- Food factories
- Transport, including railway signallers and air traffic controllers
- Critical national security
- Energy plants
- Border Force
- Production of medicines
- NHS staff and social care workers (providing local trust bosses agree)
These key workers will still have to test negative for Covid-19 to be able to attend work and take daily lateral flow tests.
People who do not qualify for exemption must continue to self-isolate if contacted by the app.
Mr Johnson said: “In the meantime I want to assure you that we will protect crucial services, including the staffing of our hospitals and our care homes, the supplies of food, water electricity and medicines, the running of our trains, the protection of our borders, the defence of our realm, by making sure that a small number – a very small number – of named fully-vaccinated critical workers are able to leave their isolation solely for the the work that I have described.
“But for the vast majority of us, myself included, I’m afraid we do need to stick with this system for now.”
Speaking in the Commons, vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi gave more details on the incoming exemption for self-isolation, which already covers frontline NHS staff and social care workers.
Mr Zahawi said the change would cover the police, air traffic controllers and train signallers, and others in “circumstances where there would be a serious risk of harm to public welfare if people in critical roles are unable to go to their workplace”.
He explained: “So people in those kinds of roles, who have received two vaccinations plus two weeks beyond the second vaccine, will not need to self-isolate for those critical tasks.”
‘Not a blanket exemption’
The government clarified that the rule change is “not a blanket exemption for any sector or role” and said departments will be writing to employers to explain their next steps.
A government spokesman added: “Decisions to inform an employer that designated critical workers are considered to have a reasonable excuse to attend work will be made by the relevant department with responsibility for the critical service.
“The employer will receive a letter from that government department informing them and telling them what steps they must follow.”
Mr Johnson is currently self-isolating in his official country residence after Health Secretary Sajid Javid tested positive for Covid-19.
Both the Prime Minister and Chancellor Rishi Sunak initially tried to avoid quarantine after being contacted by NHS Test and Trace, by saying they were taking part in a testing pilot.
But after mounting public fury they made a swift U-turn, resulting in three of the most senior ministers having to quarantine on England’s “freedom day”.
A version of this story originally appeared on our sister site, NationalWorld.