Critical staff in ‘exceptional circumstances’ – including some NHS workers, air traffic controllers and railway signallers – will be allowed to carry on working if they are exposed to someone that tests positive for Covid, the government has announced.
From today (19 July), frontline staff where absences could lead to “a significant risk of harm” will be exempt from having to self-isolate if the NHS Covid-19 app advises them to.
They will, however, need to show a negative PCR test, take daily lateral flow tests and be double vaccinated.
The government initially announced the change for some NHS workers, but the policy has since been widened to include workers providing a critical service in other sectors, such as transport, in order to prevent serious disruption to vital public services.
Decisions to inform employers that designated critical workers may have a reasonable excuse to attend work will be made by the relevant government department for their sector.
Like many employers, the NHS has been hit by staff shortages as rising case numbers have led to high numbers of staff being “pinged” by the app and required to isolate for 10 days from first contact with someone who tested positive.
Qualifying criteria will be determined on a case-by-case basis, it added, and “must be authorised by the organisation’s local Director of Infection Prevention and Control” or relevant director of public health.
Staff that receive the exemption must self-isolate when not at work and if they do develop Covid symptoms should immediately stay at home. They will also not be permitted to work with clinically extremely vulnerable patients.
Health secretary Sajid Javid said: “As we learn to live with this virus, it’s important that we ensure frontline staff can keep providing the best possible care and support to people up and down the country.
“These new rules will fortify our collective defences against this awful virus, by allowing fully vaccinated frontline NHS and social care staff to continue to work when needed.”
Dr Jenny Harries, UK Health Security Agency chief executive, said guidance had been issued for situations “where there is a significant risk to health or safety resulting from staff absence or a critical service cannot run”.
Last week, the NHS app sent self-isolation alerts to more than 530,000 people as the average number of daily confirmed cases rose to more than 48,000.
Employers and industry bodies such as the CBI have called for the government to bring forward plans for a “test and release” system that would enable staff across all sectors to be released from isolation early if they could demonstrate a negative PCR test.
The current self-isolation rules in England are not due to change until 16 August. After that, anyone who ihas been fully vaccinated for two weeks or more will no longer have to self-isolate if found to have been in close contact with someone who has tested positive. This will be the case in Scotland from 9 August and in Wales from 7 August.