Employers will have to apply for isolation exemption as government rules out critical jobs list

The government will not draw up a list of critical jobs that will be exempt from full self-isolation if workers are “pinged”.

Instead, employers will have to apply to government departments to allow workers to effectively circumvent the rules.

Boris Johnson announced on Monday that critical workers, who have been fully vaccinated for at least two weeks, will be able to leave their isolation to travel to work and do their jobs but must remain at home in isolation otherwise.

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More than 1m kids off school in England

“But for the vast majority of us, myself included, I’m afraid we do need to stick with this system for now,” he said on Monday from his Chequers retreat where he is self-isolating.

A list of specific jobs was expected but instead, the prime minister’s spokesman said the exemption would be determined case by case, with employers having to apply to the relevant government department to see if their workers can continue to come into work after they are identified as close contacts of someone who has tested positive for COVID.


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The spokesman said it could include certain workers in the food industry, utilities, border staff and the NHS, but there is no blanket exemption for sectors.

He added: “I don’t have a specific number for you at the moment. As these discussions proceed we might have a clearer sense of the numbers, but as the prime minister set out yesterday it will be a very low number of people.”

Asked if it will be on the scale of hundreds or thousands, the spokesman said: “I wouldn’t want to set specific numbers on it at this point.”

On whether supermarket workers specifically would be included in the exemption, he said the government is “not seeking to draw lines specifically around who or who is not exempt” but it is important to “make sure critical services are able to function”.

He added: “The first exemptions I understand have already been given in some critical sectors, that work is going on given the urgency. That’s in both wider sectors and the NHS as well.”

Analysis by Tom Rayner, digital politics editor

Having announced self-isolation exemptions for frontline health and care workers, the prime minister said last night the alternative of daily testing would be further extended to a “very small number” of other critical workers.

He said these limited exemptions would be used to protect crucial public services, such as the supply of water, food, electricity and medicines.

It was clear this would not be as broad a list of critical workers as had been used at earlier points in the pandemic, such as the categorisations that allowed children of key workers to continue to attend school which amounted to around 2 million people.

But given the option of daily testing had been made available to frontline health workers across the board, many employers in food production and other areas listed by Mr Johnson assumed the exemption would be applied in a similar fashion to their sectors.

That assumption was understandable, given just this morning a minister was saying a notification to self-isolate from the NHS app was to allow businesses and individuals “to make decisions on what’s best for them”.

The government have now said that is not the case, that isolation remains crucial for most workers, and that individual employers will need to apply to specific Whitehall departments for exemptions on a case by case basis.

Despite Downing Street’s insistence their message has not changed between last night and today, many businesses struggling to cope with workforce absence are asking whether they were listening to the same announcement.

Industry representatives have said the new rules are confusing and businesses need urgent clarification.

Ian Wright, chief executive of the Food and Drink Federation, welcomed the fact food production workers would be exempt from self-isolation but they “urgently need clarification from the government, including further detail on how the scheme will work”.

Claire Walker, co-executive director of the British Chambers of Commerce, said: “The messages coming out of government seemed to have changed hour by hour today and firms are really struggling to make sense of them.

“Businesses urgently need government to get control and provide clear and unambiguous guidance on what they can and cannot do, as well as provide a clear direction forward.”

Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, said the only way the policy could make a “meaningful difference” is to apply a blanket exemption to either a whole company or entire supply chain division.

“Requiring businesses to name individual workers will be time-consuming, fractious and confusing and is unlikely to make a meaningful difference.”

Iceland and Greene King latest to be hit by ‘pingdemic’ closures

Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi earlier said the exemption would cover those 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”.

A government spokesman added on Monday evening it is “not a blanket exemption for any sector or role” and employers will receive a letter from the relevant government department informing them and telling them what steps to follow.

But the advice appears to have changed slightly, with the onus on employers to contact the government instead of the other way around.

The prime minister had come under increasing pressure to change isolation rules for close contacts of positive cases who are working in essential industries as it was crippling businesses.

Image: Supermarket workers are not necessarily exempt under the new rules. Pic: Sainsbury’s

Dubbed the “pingdemic”, a growing number of people have been alerted by the NHS COVID app in recent weeks, meaning lots of critical workers without symptoms – who cannot work from home – are having to self-isolate.

In the first week of July, more than half a million people were told to self-isolate, a 46% increase on the previous week and a number that is continuing to rise.

The government said it does not plan to reduce the sensitivity of the app to avoid people being pinged as a third of those told to isolate develop symptoms.

Mr Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak were also heavily criticised for saying they would be taking part in a pilot where they take daily tests instead of self-isolating after coming into contact with Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who tested positive.

They quickly performed a U-turn and said they would self-isolate, with Mr Johnson insisting he was not above the rules.