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Food workers given exemption from isolation rules

Supermarket depot workers and food manufacturers are to be exempt from quarantine rules as the government tries to prevent food supply problems.

The move comes after the rising number of retail workers being forced to self-isolate was beginning to affect the availability of some products.

The government announced last week that workers, regardless of vaccination status, could do daily COVID testing instead of isolating.

BBC News has reported that up to 10,000 workers are expected to qualify for the scheme.

It comes as supermarkets said the supply of some products was being affected by the “pingdemic” keeping staff away from work, as a record 618,903 people were told to self-isolate by the NHS COVID app in England and Wales.

While some retailers said they may have to close stores, they downplayed fears of food shortages, saying the problems were not widespread.

The new daily contact testing measures are beginning at 15 supermarket depots, followed by 150 depots, but it will not apply to supermarket store staff.

It will mean depot workers who are alerted by the app or contacted by NHS Test and Trace will be able to continue working if they test negative, whether or not they are vaccinated.

Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said that “disruption is limited at the moment” but it was vital that the government rolls out the scheme as fast as possible and is prepared to take further action if necessary.

Other industries

In a separate development, other key industries in England will also be allowed to deploy daily COVID testing instead of self-isolation for a limited number of essential workers. And in this case, it will only apply to those who are fully vaccinated.

This scheme covers sectors including transport, emergency services, border control, energy, digital infrastructure, waste, the water industry, essential defence outputs and local government.

The policy only applies to workers named on a list kept updated by officials - it is not a blanket exemption for all employees in a sector, says the BBC.

Hannah Essex, co-executive director of the British Chambers of Commerce, said that while the announcement would 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”.

CBI director general Tony Danker agreed, warning: “The current approach to self-isolation is closing down the economy, rather than opening it up.”

Businesses have already exhausted contingency plans to get in extra staff and are “at risk of grinding to a halt in the next few weeks”, he added.

Scotland has also launched a system of exemptions from self-isolation, covering workers in sectors such as health and social care.

Health Secretary Sajid Javid said daily testing of food industry staff would “minimise the disruption caused by rising cases in the coming weeks, while ensuring workers are not put at risk”.

However, Environment Secretary George Eustice said the scheme was not being extended to supermarket store staff at this stage - as the government was still concerned about the level of COVID hospital admissions.

BBC News July 2021

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