What to do in a "Pingdemic"

Dubbed a “pingdemic”, as restrictions eased in England thousands have been notified by the NHS test and trace app that they must self-isolate for 10 days. This is due to them being identified as a close contact of someone who recently tested positive for Covid-19. The adverse effects have been most felt by employers, some of whom are now experiencing staff shortages and have had to close their businesses.

It has recently been reported that nearly 700,000 people were told to self-isolate in the week to 21 July 2021 – the highest weekly figure thus far. As a result, businesses are having to find alternative means of managing their workforce. For example, the managing director of Iceland has expressed that the supermarket chain has been forced to hire 2,000 temporary workers.

Managing an unexpected period of self-isolation can be gruelling but employers who have the opportunity to allow their staff to work from home should do so. They may also wish to consider whether their staff are eligible to an exemption under the Government’s new rules on self-isolation and critical workers.

Faced with calls from business groups across a range of sectors affected by staff shortages, the Government has updated guidance which was first issued in May 2020. The revised version now includes information about self-isolation for workers in critical services. It states: “…a limited number of named workers may be able to leave self-isolation under specific controls for the purpose of undertaking critical work only.”

This process is only intended to run until 16 August 2021, when fully vaccinated close contacts will be exempt from self-isolation. Where employers believe the self-isolation of certain key employees would result in serious disruption to critical services, they should contact the relevant government department.

Which sectors are covered?

The sectors to which the new rules apply are:

  • energy
  • civil nuclear
  • digital infrastructure
  • food production and supply
  • waste
  • water
  • veterinary medicines
  • essential chemicals
  • essential transport
  • medicines
  • medical devices
  • clinical consumable supplies
  • emergency services
  • border control
  • essential defence outputs; and
  • local government.

In some exceptional cases there may be critical roles in sectors not listed above which meet the criteria. These will be agreed on a case-by-case basis. Where employers think this applies, they should contact the government department with responsibility for their sector.

Exceptional process for specific circumstances

The Government makes it clear that this policy applies to named workers in specifically approved workplaces who are fully vaccinated (defined as someone who is 14 days post-final dose) and who have been identified as close contacts.

Permission to attend work is, it emphasises, contingent on following certain controls, agreed by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), to mitigate the risk of increased infection.

This is not, it insists, a blanket exemption for all workers in a sector.

The process will not cover all or in most cases even the majority of workers in critical sectors. The example given is that an exception may be suitable in the case of absences in critical railway signalling roles essential for the functioning of parts of the network but is less likely to be suitable for individual train drivers.

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