The CBI and CIPD have called for urgent action to amend self-isolation policies as employers report surging numbers of staff being “pinged” and forced to stay home.
A host of businesses reported staff shortages over the weekend, including Marks & Spencer and pub chain Greene King, which has been forced to close 33 pubs because so many staff have been forced to self isolate. London Underground also had to cut services.
At present, self-isolation rules are not due to be relaxed until 16 August, despite today (19 July) previously being hailed as “freedom day” in England and many coronavirus restrictions dropped, such as the legal requirement to wear a mask.
The NHS contact tracing app pings someone if they have spent time (15 minutes or more) in close contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19. The person is then advised to self-isolate for 10 days from the start of contact.
A recent poll found that around one in five users has now deleted the app. However, the government today confirmed it would not be overhauling the app to make it less sensitive.
Covid-19 workplace policies
CBI president, Karan Bilimoria, said: “With restrictions being lifted and cases rapidly increasing, we urgently need a surefooted approach from the government.
“Building and maintaining confidence is key to securing the economic recovery. Mask-wearing in enclosed spaces, especially transport, will help create confidence for both staff and customers, as will clarity around the future availability of free testing for employees.”
Ben Willmott, head of public policy for the CIPD, urged the government to “urgently review” the criteria under which NHS Test and Trace requires close contacts of Covid cases to self-isolate.
“The review should consider the merits of changes such as ‘test and release’ whereby staff who have been asked to self-isolate could return to work if they subsequently have two negative PCR tests over five days. This could potentially continue to protect the public while being more flexible to the needs of business,” he said.
CIPD poll data revealed that nearly six in ten (57%) HR professionals said their organisation faced staff shortages in the last month because of employees self-isolating after being contacted by NHS Test and Trace. “This problem is only going to grow as the economy continues to open up after restrictions end, with the risk that disruption to organisations’ services and operations starts to have severe consequences for the public and business,” he added.
“In the meantime, employers will have to be flexible to cope with absent workers and mitigate against staff shortages by freeing up staff from less business-critical areas and using temporary workers where possible. Inevitably, businesses may have to compromise service at times to ensure guidance is followed.
“Many employees will be anxious about rising infection levels, so employers need to be mindful of the risks not just to physical health but also their employees’ mental wellbeing. Employers should continue to encourage people to work from home where possible, to reduce the number of contacts their staff have in the workplace or when travelling to work. For roles where employees need to be in the workplace, organisations should continue using measures to reduce staff contact, such as staggered start and finish times.
“Employers should also review layouts and consider the continued use of screens or barriers to reduce the number of people their workers come into contact within the workplace, or the wearing of masks as people move around.”
M&S chief executive Steve Rowe told the Sunday Times that the number of Covid cases among staff was doubling every week, and three times as many staff were being pinged.
Nick Mackenzie, chief executive of Greene King, told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme that “we think the number is about one in five of our team members who have been affected by this and therefore it is causing a real issue for us setting up a business on a daily basis”.
Last week, a number of employers including Nissan and Asos complained of similar staff shortages due to self-isolation requirements.
Mackenzie urged the government to introduce a “test and release” scheme to allow more people to come into work. “That’s all we’re really asking for, let’s get back to some normality,” he added.
Ministers themselves came under scrutiny this weekend after health secretary Sajid Javid tested positive for Covid-19 and prime minister Boris Johnson and chancellor Rishi Sunak were advised to self-isolate by the NHS app due to close contact.
After initially claiming they would still be able to go about their duties because they were part of a daily testing trial, Sunak and Johnson quickly announced they would self-isolate for the required period.
In a statement, Johnson said: “We did look briefly into the idea of us taking part in the pilot scheme which allows people to test daily, but I think it’s far more important that everybody sticks to the same rules.
“I really do urge everybody to stick with the programme and take the appropriate course of action when you’re asked to do so by NHS test and trace.”