UK spares key workers quarantine as staff shortages bite

Officials have eased rules on self-isolation for a range of essential workers in a bid to alleviate ‘pingdemic’ disruption.

The UK has one of the world’s highest COVID-19 death tolls and the rate of new cases is forecast to rise sharply following a recent lifting of most pandemic restrictions in England [Hannah McKay/Reuters]

The United Kingdom’s government has announced it will ease coronavirus quarantine rules for thousands more essential workers in an attempt to end staff shortages that are hobbling parts of the economy.

About 26 million Britons have downloaded a health service phone app that “pings” people to tell them to self-isolate for 10 days if they come into close contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

With the UK recently recording tens of thousands of new virus cases a day, the system has led to a so-called “pingdemic” during which rates of employee absence for restaurants and a swathe of other businesses have soared and gaps on some supermarket shelves have appeared.

Starting August 16, anyone who has been fully vaccinated will be able to take daily coronavirus tests rather than self-isolating.

But many businesses are pushing for the change to happen sooner.

Last week, the government said food and transport workers, border staff, police and firefighters could opt for the daily tests.

Late on Monday, it expanded that system to include more jobs including, rubbish collectors and prison staff as well as people working in the armed forces.

The government said 2,000 sites would be set up to meet the increased demand for tests.

One person who has been “pinged” by the app is Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had to self-isolate after Health Secretary Sajid Javid tested positive this month.

Johnson’s 10-day spell in isolation ended at midnight on Monday.

Johnson said he understood people’s frustration, but urged them to “stick with the programme.”

“We do need to use the tools that we have. Self-isolation is the one that we’ve got. I urge people to do it,” he said.

Those notified by the app are not legally required to self-isolate. And there have been reports that people have deleted the app from their phones.

The app’s contact tracing function can also be turned off.

Johnson removed most remaining pandemic restrictions in England, including mandatory mask rules and capacity limits, on July 19, despite several weeks of rising infections driven by the highly contagious Delta variant of the virus.

Despite that easing, cases have fallen for six straight days, with Monday’s figure of 24,950 confirmed infections down more than a third from the figure a week earlier.

Scientists said the decline could reflect the end of the Euro 2020 football tournament, which drew crowds to games, pubs and parties, and the recent end of the school year for most pupils.

The UK has also given 70 percent of adults both doses of a coronavirus vaccine.

But authorities cautioned that the effect of the end of restrictions on July 19 has not yet been felt in the figures.

Johnson said that “it is very, very important that we don’t allow ourselves to run away with premature conclusions” about the infection rate.

“People have got to remain very cautious, and that remains the approach of the government,” he said.

Source: AP