About 10,000 workers in the food supply chain industry will be exempt from the coronavirus self-isolation rules – but that will not include supermarket staff, the government said.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said the government had identified “up to 500” distribution centers and food supply chain centers where workers could be part of the program.
Anyone involved will soon no longer have to self-isolate for up to 10 days if they come into contact with a positive coronavirus case.
Mr Eustice said the exemption would begin Friday for 15 “priority testing sites,” with workers moving to a daily testing regimen that allows them to work if they test negative every day, instead of having to put themselves on the job. quarantine.
The system will then be rolled out to 150 more supermarket depots next week and “several hundred” food manufacturers thereafter, Eustice said.
“We recognize that there are staff shortages in the food supply chain, so we are announcing for the first 400 or so sites, things like supermarket depots and some of the major food manufacturers, we are going to change the system to allow them to test to return to work.
“So a person contacted by Test and Trace or who is pinged will be able to undergo daily contact tests and continue working as long as they are negative.”
Mr Eustice said the new exemption would apply to “probably nearly 10,000, possibly more staff”, including supermarket depots and distribution centers.
“Anyone who works at one of these sites but is currently self-isolating would be able to return to work and enter this testing regime instead of continuing to self-isolate,” Mr. Eustice said.
Emphasizing why supermarket staff are not included in the plans, the Environment Secretary said: “We recognize that there are absences in individual stores, but we feel the priority is to restart distribution so that we can get food to these stores.
“It is true that some stores have absence levels, which means towards the end of the day they don’t have stock on the shelves like they could have.
“But including tens of thousands of stores across the country would be a major departure from the test, trace and isolate approach we have.”
It comes as companies have warned of increasing staff shortages caused by people being forced to self-isolate by the NHS COVID app.
Iceland said on Monday it had had to close some stores as a result and other retailers said they were under “increasing pressure” to keep shelves fully stocked due to the so-called “pingemia”.
The CBI group of companies said supply issues could hamper the country’s economic recovery after COVID-19.
But on Thursday, at a roundtable with supermarket executives, Mr Eustice and newly appointed Health Secretary Sajid Javid presented plans for daily contact tests for workers in the food and drink industries. .
If they are positive, they should still self-isolate for the full 10 days.
The government said it would continue to “engage” with the food sector and “provide whatever support is needed.”
Mr Eustice described food companies as the “hidden heroes of the pandemic”.
“We are working closely with industry to enable staff to do their essential jobs safely with daily testing,” he said.
“The past 18 months have shown that we have a very resilient food supply chain. There is enough food in the system and people can and should shop as usual.
And Mr Javid added that workers in the food and beverage industry have “overcome tremendous challenges and go out of their way to keep our shelves full and our refrigerators full.”
“As we manage this virus and do everything possible to break the chains of transmission, daily contact testing of workers in this vital sector will help minimize the disruption caused by the increase in cases in the weeks to come, while ensuring that workers are not endangered, “he said.
The government added that “critical roles in the food supply chain” will also apply to the new isolation rule.
“Employers are already in contact with Defra (Ministry of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and approvals will follow shortly for the named critical workers to come to their workplace when they are fully completed. vaccinated and in contact with a positive case, ”they said.
Earlier Thursday, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng told Kay Burley on Sky News that the list of those exempt from segregation would be “quite narrow”.
Responding to the announcement, Helen Dickinson, Managing Director of the British Retail Consortium, said: “We welcome the government’s swift response to this ongoing ‘pingemia’, which has had an impact on stores and shopping centers. distribution.
“Retailers are working closely with the government to identify hundreds of key distribution sites that will benefit from the new daily contact testing program. It is absolutely essential that the government make up for lost time and roll out this new program as quickly as possible.
“The disruption is limited at this time and retailers are monitoring the situation closely. The government will need to continue to listen to the concerns of the retail sector in the coming days and must be prepared to take further action if necessary.”