Staff shortages and Track and Trace stymie reopening on freedom day

·4-min read
A notification issued by the NHS coronavirus contact tracing app informing a person of the need to self-isolate immediately. Photo: PA
A notification issued by the NHS coronavirus contact tracing app informing a person of the need to self-isolate immediately. Photo: PA

Businesses were meant to breathe a sigh of relief with all lockdown restrictions ending on 19 July, but instead they are facing staff shortages as more than half a million Brits are asked to self-isolate.

More and more people being sent alerts to stay home by the NHS COVID-19 app because they have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for the virus is "causing havoc", businesses have warned, and raising fears of a "pingdemic" that is impacting many sectors, from hospitality and meat production, to cars.

The NHS app states that when contacted, individuals must self-isolate for 10 days. This comes as the number of new UK coronavirus cases climbed to 48,553 on Thursday amid the rapid spread of the Delta variant, first identified in India

The FT said more than 520,000 contact-tracing alerts were sent in England in the week ending July 7 – a 46% increase on the previous week.

And analysis by the Guardian has shown that as many as 1.6 million people in England were asked to isolate in a single week by the NHS COVID-19 because they had come into contact with someone who tested positive.

A BBC report said the meat industry is warning there could be a shortage of meat products as processors see up to one in 10 of their workforce told to self-isolate.

The British Chamber of Commerce (BCC) said some of its members are "struggling to stay open as a result" of self-isolation.

"Firms need to know if there are any plans to help them cope... including any plans to roll out a ‘test and release’ process – allowing people to return to work more swiftly," said Hannah Essex, co-executive director of the BCC.

Meanwhile, trade union Unite has said isolation warnings "are on the verge of shutting factories across the UK."

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It has received multiple notices from several industries, particularly the automotive sector, that the issue is "causing havoc on production lines with some sites struggling to operate due to hundreds of staff being off at once."

"I believe we're hours not days or weeks away from our first temporary closure of sites," Unite's national officer Steve Bush told BBC Newsnight.

One major engine supplier told Unite that delays to orders are so severe that work "may be permanently moved to China."

This comes as Rolls-Royce (RR.L), which has been implementing social distancing within its factories so far, told the Telegraph it may have to shut down production after a large proportion of its staff had been pinged by the app.

The publication has even warned of a "pingdemic", not least because the app is now also alerting neighbours of those who are infected even though they may never have come into contact with them. This is likely because “the Bluetooth signal used is known to be strong enough to penetrate walls."

Data also shows one in five workers in hospitality and retail, some of the hardest hit sectors, are currently self-isolating.

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"Bar and restaurant owners who have only just got their livelihoods back tell me they are struggling as staff are forever being pinged by track and trace, with some returning to work only to be sent back to isolation a couple of days later," said Charlie Mullins, founder of Pimlico Plumbers.

The high number of people being asked to isolate comes even as more than 46 million people in the UK have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine

The government plans to make the app “less sensitive” and take into account vaccinations, but this could reportedly take another month.

"The month-long disconnect between the lifting of restrictions and the ending of self-isolation is only going to exacerbate existing staff shortages and will inevitably force many businesses, particularly those in the retail and hospitality sectors, to close their doors," IoD’s policy director Roger Barker, told Yahoo Finance UK.

Meanwhile Kate Nicholls, CEO of UK Hospitality warned that "without better intervention, operators will continue to be forced to reduce their operating hours or to close venues completely, missing the opportunity to begin on their road to recovery."

"We urge the government to move quicker on this issue to prevent the summer being cancelled and vast swathes of the population unnecessarily confined to their homes.”

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