The chaos caused by the NHS Test and Trace app could cause food shortages, the leader of one of the UK’s biggest ports companies has warned.

There is mounting alarm at the economic impact of the disruption caused by more than 500,000 people being forced to stay at home for up to 10 days after receiving an alert telling them they have been near someone who tested positive for Covid-19, as it was predicted that the numbers could rise to up to five million. 

There have been urgent meetings over recent days between government officials from three departments and business groups, where it was stressed that if you are alerted through the app to the fact that you have been in contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19, the instruction to self-isolate is advisory, whereas if you are identified by NHS Test and Trace it is legally required. 

However, Number 10 continued to publicly insist that anyone pinged by the app had to self-isolate, despite The Telegraph revealing some people are being identified as contacts through walls.  

Tim Morris, chief executive of the UK Major Ports Group, described what has been dubbed the “pingdemic” as the most “significant threat to ports’ resilience we have seen yet”.

He said: “If the current trajectory of absences continues without the Government taking any action there has to be a risk of disruption to important supply chains, including food.”

Meat processors also reported that one in 10 of their workforce were being told to self-isolate by the app, in a development that could require firms “to start shutting down production lines all together”.

Elsewhere, trains were cancelled and councils warned residents that garden waste bins would not be emptied for 10 weeks because of staff shortages caused by the requirement to self-isolate.

Even holiday destinations such as Padstow – which had hoped to benefit from a “staycation summer” owing to the pandemic cancelling foreign holidays – have been affected.

Alarms and warnings

The scale of the disruption has alarmed economists, with one warning that it will set back the post-pandemic recovery by “a few months”, costing the economy billions of pounds in lost growth.

The chaos comes as millions of people prepare to return to work on Monday when most Covid restrictions in England are lifted on what has been dubbed “Freedom Day”.

Lord Bilamoria, president of the Confederation of British Industry, warned on Friday that at current rates the UK was on course to see five million people being forced to self-isolate despite many not having the virus.

The peer said the self-isolation rules should be scrapped and the planned rule changes brought forward from August 16. From this date, anyone who is fully vaccinated will be able to return to work after a ping following a negative PCR test.

He told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme: “Otherwise – if you do the sums – the cases have already crossed 50,000 a day. If they cross 100,000, instead of 500,000 people isolating, we will go up to, some people have estimated, 4.5 million to five million.”

Economic damage

Julian Jessop, Economics fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said the disruption – which has seen Nissan and Rolls-Royce factories threatened with temporary closure – “might delay the return of overall GDP to pre-pandemic levels by a few months”. 

Sources said this could equate to £4 billion a month in lost output.

Roger Barker, policy director at the Institute of Directors, added: “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.”

Number 10 has insisted that anyone who has been notified by the app to self-isolate had to follow the rules. 

The Prime Minister’s deputy official spokesman said: “We are asking people who are contacted by the app to continue to self-isolate.”

Mixed messages

Yet it also emerged that officials at the Treasury and the business department have been in touch in recent days with business groups to make clear that being pinged was only advisory. 

A similar message has been given to meat production firms by the environment department.

One business source said company leaders had been quietly told that staff who are pinged should be able to return to work after a negative PCR test and avoid isolating for up to 10 days.

However, it has also emerged that the results of a pilot that would allow people to officially avoid self-isolation if they take daily tests will not be known for another two months, officials confirmed.

 Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, has also decided not to adjust the sensitivity of the Covid-19 app due to the soaring cases following a review into how it was working in the past few days, The Telegraph has learned.

Consumer group Which? also warned that it could be “incredibly difficult” for those ordered to self-isolate to get their money back if holidays were cancelled because someone was pinged.