An emblem of British car manufacturing, Rolls-Royce has been “religious” about social distancing within its factories throughout the pandemic.
But its chief executive has now said it is on the “edge of a critical situation” and would not rule out shutting down production after a large proportion of its staff had been pinged by the NHS Covid-19 app.
“Cases have gone through the roof and it is causing havoc,” Torsten Müller-Ötvös, the chief executive, told The Telegraph, declining to reveal what proportion of the company’s 2,000 staff have been ordered to self-isolate.
Though the manufacturer hopes to avoid a complete shutdown, Mr Müller-Ötvös said you “never say never”. The company is now examining having to combine staff from both shifts – who have not been “pinged” – into a single shift.
The luxury car maker is the latest in a list of UK manufacturers, hospitality businesses, transport operators and councils which have been hit by staff absences after they were told to self-isolate by the app.
The NHS Covid-19 app covers England and Wales only, with similar contact tracing apps in place in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
One in five hospitality and retail workers self-isolating
One in five workers in hospitality and retail are currently self-isolating, MPs heard earlier this week. From August 16, doubled-jabbed contacts of positive cases will no longer need to self-isolate for 10 days.
But Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, is reportedly considering whether the rule change could be brought forward for healthcare workers amid concerns over staff shortages.
The number of people who have been alerted by the NHS Covid-19 app has increased by almost four-fold in the past month, new figures revealed on Thursday.
More than half a million alerts were sent to users of the app in England and Wales in the most recent week, telling them they had been in close contact with someone who had tested positive for coronavirus.
Number of contact tracing alerts sent in England
Some 530,126 alerts – 520,194 in England and 9,932 in Wales – were sent in the seven days to July 7.
This is up 46 per cent on the previous week and is the highest seven-day total since data was first published in January.
But when compared to the same figure from a month ago, the increase is up almost four-fold from 111,605 alerts in the week ending June 9.
In Newcastle, South Tyneside, North Tyneside and Lincoln, there was the equivalent of 200 pings per 10,000 people in the week to July 7 – one for every 50 people being told to self-isolate through the app.
This is compared to about one in 400 pings per person in Pendle, Lancashire.
Factories on verge of shutting
Hundreds of workers at Nissan’s Sunderland car factory, which Boris Johnson visited earlier this month, have been forced to isolate after coming into contact with a positive case, it emerged on Thursday.
Several shifts at the plant have been cancelled in recent weeks and more than 700 workers are isolating, the Financial Times first reported.
The manufacturer confirmed production in some areas of the plant has been “adjusted” to manage the number of staff who have been told to self-isolate.
“The wellbeing of our team is our number one priority and we remain confident in the rigorous safety controls we have on site,” a spokesman said.
One industry source told The Telegraph that Rolls-Royce had been “religious” about social distancing and controls to halt the spread of the virus compared with some car makers.
The company had a large presence at the Goodwood Festival of Speed last week, which was staged next to the car maker’s factory on the Duke of Richmond’s estate.
However, the Rolls-Royce boss said he did not link the motorsports event with staff having to isolate, adding that workers started being pinged at least 10 days earlier as pubs opened and crowds gathered to watch Euro 2020 matches.
Crowds gather in Piccadilly following Italy’s victory over England at the Euro 2020 final
Credit: Jamie Lorriman
In Coventry, employees at a factory making electric vehicles claimed dozens of workers had failed to turn up to work on Monday after being pinged by the app.
Members of staff at the London Electric Vehicle Company, which manufactures taxis, alleged there had been an outbreak of the virus at the end of June.
One worker, who wished to remain anonymous, told a local paper: “Some people that should have been self-isolating have been car sharing as well, they’re back to work.”
A company spokesman told The Coventry Telegraph: “Any affected employee is not permitted to visit the site in any capacity.”
Cummins, a generator producer with sites in London, Leeds and Glasgow, has also been impacted by staff shortages due to isolation rules.
“The self-isolation protocols instituted by the UK Government are impacting many companies, including Cummins, and we are actively working to mitigate the impact on our customers while prioritising the health and safety of all people,” a spokesman said.
The Unite union said hundreds of employees are off work at some sites, especially in the automotive sector, with alerts from the NHS app causing “havoc” on production lines.
The union said the Government should not wait until August 16 to find a solution to the issue, which it warned will lead to people deleting the app.
Steve Turner, the assistant general secretary, said: “No one is advocating for coronavirus controls to go out the window and Unite’s number one priority remains the health and safety of our members.
“But the reports Unite is receiving from our members and their employers are extremely worrying. It is not an exaggeration to say factories are on the verge of shutting and that at some sites hundreds of staff are off work.
“We know that industry leaders are keen to adopt a trial currently being held at a major car maker to safely reduce self-isolation absences to prevent the sector from being crippled.
“It is clear that something has to be done in time for July 19, or else people will simply start deleting the app en masse to avoid isolation notices. There will be public health consequences if test and trace becomes seen as a nuisance rather than an infection control measure.”
Travel and hospitality industry in chaos
Earlier this week, passengers at Heathrow Airport were faced with “chaotic” queues of up to two-and-a-half hours after about 100 security staff were forced to self-isolate, delaying 15 flights.
Airport staff reportedly told travellers that “120 security staff” had been told to isolate after just one colleague tested positive. Heathrow later confirmed that some staff had been told to self-isolate, causing “passenger congestion” in the terminal.
Queues at Heathrow on Monday after security staff were pinged by the NHS app
Holidaymakers in Cornwall are being encouraged to forgo hotel room cleaning as the South West suffers severe staff shortages exacerbated by pings from the test and trace app.
Hotels, restaurants and pubs are reporting shortages because many European workers who would normally come to Britain for seasonal summer work are reluctant to travel because of quarantine rules.
Bedruthan Hotel in Mawgan Porth near Newquay is offering guests a £15 credit for each day they choose not to have housekeeping visit their rooms.
Emma Benney, the marketing manager, said the scheme tackled staffing shortages and reassured those guests who do not want cleaners having access to their room while Covid cases are rising.
“Staff from Europe who would traditionally come here for seasonal work are struggling to return to the UK due to the pandemic,” she said. “There are also staff accommodation shortages because homes previously used for people relocating here for work are being let now as holiday homes.
“Then there is the threat of staff being ‘pinged’ which would remove them from service. Although this hasn’t been too much of a problem for us, it has certainly affected businesses in the area.”
Guests at Mother Ivey’s Bay Holiday Park in Cornwall were asked to help clean the toilet block after staff were forced to isolate by the app.
Elsewhere, Red Funnel, which has operated a ferry between Southampton to Isle of Wight for more than 160 years, was forced to cancel services after almost a third of staff were told to isolate.
Staff shortages meant the 200-year-old company was unable to meet the legal requirements in the number of essential crew members manning the ferries. Twelve ferries were cancelled between Wednesday and Thursday.
NHS Covid app venue alerts sent
The lack of available staff has also caused delays in loading and unloading cargo and passengers, creating a build-up of queues at ports.
Fran Collins, the CEO of Red Funnel, said: “The increase in popularity of staycations this year has resulted in our ferry service becoming busier much earlier than normal.
“The impact of Covid-19 has been disastrous on our ability to maintain an efficient and essential service for many Islanders.
“Despite higher levels than normal of recruitment, currently 30 per cent of our operational staff are unable to work, with many team members having been contacted by the NHS Test and Trace system or self-isolating.
“As a result, we have had to take the very difficult decision to cancel some sailings in order to maintain our services.”
Waste collections postponed
Some councils across England have also reduced bin collections after a number of staff were pinged.
Almost a quarter (23 per cent) of Coventry’s 34 waste collection crews are currently off work, forcing the council to suspend garden waste collections for two weeks.
Fifteen frontline staff are off sick, but not with Covid-19, the council said. Nine are self-isolating and some are on annual leave.
Recycling waste collections in Thornton, Lancashire, were cancelled on Wednesday after a large number of collection crews were pinged.
The town’s 30,000 residents were told by Wyre Council to wait for the next collection or take their rubbish to a recycling centre themselves.
Authorities warned this delay could be even longer as the situation could change as the “week goes on”.
An “unprecedented” number of refuse collectors in Redcar and Cleveland, North Yorkshire, were also pinged by the app this week causing garden and bulky waste collections to be temporarily suspended.
Cllr Julie Craig, cabinet member for highways, neighbourhoods and transport, apologised to residents affected by the changes.
“There are a very small number of positive cases among council staff, but a very high number who are now self-isolating. When any one staff member confirms contact with someone who has tested positive, it inevitably has a knock-on effect on their crew mates,” she said.
“These isolations include a high number of specially-trained drivers, for whom a substitute cannot easily be found. It is this temporary lack of specialist staff that means safe operation at full capacity is not possible.”