Employers and industry bodies are calling for the government to take action after the NHS test and trace app has ‘pinged’ so many workers they’ve been left with staff shortages.
The app sent a record 520,194 alerts last week, and leaders across a number of industries have called for plans to make the app less sensitive to be brought forward with ministers also being accused of sending ‘mixed messages’ and of creating confusion.
The 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.
With cases reaching their highest point in six months yesterday (15 July), the number of individuals receiving alerts from the app has soared, leaving businesses struggling for staff cover.
Currently changes to isolation rules do not come into effect until 16 August and will only exempt those who have had both vaccinations from having to quarantine. Those who have been double-jabbed will be asked to take a PCR test and as long as it is negative they do not have to self-isolate.
This is almost a month after so-called “freedom day” on Monday 19 July, when the legal obligation to wear masks and for social distancing is removed.
Car manufacturer Nissan said more than 10% of its staff had been asked to self-isolate and warned that production could be affected as a result. Rolls-Royce said the level of self-isolation could mean it has to halve production at its factory in Goodwood.
Yet again the reopening of the economy is being impeded by poor communication and mixed messages” – Dr Roger Barker, policy director, Institute of Directors: “
Meat processing companies have warned that self-isolation absence could mean consumers see shortages of meat products. The British Meat Processors Association said that some businesses could be forced to shut down production lines altogether.
Online fashion retailer Asos has experienced similar levels of disruption, with CEO Nick Beighton commenting that “even people who have been double jabbed are having to self-isolate”. Iceland and Sainsbury’s have also reported increased absences due to alerts from the app.
The hospitality sector – already struggling to recruit staff – has also been heavily impacted by the app because employees come into contact with so many people. Trade body UK Hospitality estimates that up to 20% of the sector’s workforce could be in self-isolation.
More than 100 security staff at Heathrow were pinged into isolation, forcing delays for passengers.
The Institute of Directors weighed into the debate late on Friday 16 July saying there was now real confusion as to whether getting ‘pinged’ meant people were legally obliged to stay at home or whether it was merely advice.
Dr Roger Barker, the IoD’s Policy Director, said: “Yet again the reopening of the economy is being impeded by poor communication and mixed messages. The latest guidance for businesses clearly states that, by law, businesses must not allow a self-isolating worker to come to work. But, at the same time, ministers are briefing the media that the app is merely advisory.
“With three days to go until the remaining restrictions are removed, businesses are still unclear as to the steps they need to take to ensure a safe and secure workplace for their staff and customers.”
A recent poll by Savanta ComRes for the Guardian found that one in five people have deleted the app already, with a third of users between the ages of 18 and 34 having deleted it already.
Anyone contacted by NHS Test and Trace has to self-isolate by law, with fines starting at £1,000 and rising to £10,000 for repeat offences if the rules are breached. Employers in England face fines of up to £10,000 if they fail to prevent workers who have been contacted by the service from going to work.
However, an alert from the NHS app is advisory and there is no legal requirement to stay at home.
Beverley Sunderland, director at Crossland Employment Solicitors, explained: “The Health Protection (Coronavirus, Restrictions) (Self-Isolation) (England) Regulations 2020, make it a legal requirement to self-isolate when testing positive or when contacted by test and trace. Under those regulations employers will be fined between £1,000 for the first offence and £10k for the fourth and subsequent offences if they ask an employee to come to work.
“However, these regulations specifically say that they do not apply where an adult is notified by means of the NHS Covid 19 smartphone app that they have been in close contact with someone with Covid. These notifications are advisory only.”
Sunderland advised that while employers might not risk criminal prosecution if they ask “pinged” employees to come into work, they do have a legal obligation to “do all they reasonably can to provide a safe place of work”.
“If they do not implement a policy obliging all employees to advise them if they have been pinged by the NHS app, as well as contacted by test and trace or tested positive and instructing them to self-isolate, then there is a good argument that they have not done all they reasonably can to protect the health of their employees. This policy should make it clear that failure to do so will be potential gross misconduct as it risks harm to their colleagues or their families,” she added.
“The policy could require employees to send a photo of their notification as evidence and make it clear what will happen to them financially as this will be key.”
Employers have the option to place employees on furlough, grant annual leave or offer unpaid leave if the “pinged” employee is not able to do their job from home. Some employees are eligible for grants of up to £500 if they are on a low income or in-work benefits.
Ministers are reported to be looking at a “test to release” system that would allow employees to return to work more quickly.
Earlier this week the CBI called for an early end to self-isolation rules, publishing a six-point plan on how employers can welcome workers back confidently. This included a call to “use all means to reduce self-isolation impacts on staff shortage, including test and release”.