Food delivery drivers at a firm struggling with staff shortages have been told to follow a Covid testing regime and continue working if they are pinged by the NHS Covid app, in breach of the Government advice to self-isolate.
Bidfood, one of the UK’s largest food wholesalers, has encouraged their delivery drivers to take a PCR test and return to work rather than follow the recommended isolation period of 10 days.
More than half a million people were pinged by the app in a single week, meaning thousands of shop workers, food industry staff and delivery drivers across the country are having to self-isolate, either after catching Covid or being pinged by NHS Test and Trace after coming into close contact with a positive case.
Bidfood chief executive Andrew Selley defended his approach for delivery drivers to continue working if they have negative results as "appropriate and safe" because they are "critical workers".
He said the firm, whose customers include hospitals, has heard no information about how to apply for an exemption for some fully-vaccinated staff to avoid quarantine under new plans to ease the "pingdemic".
Amid a "real challenge" in completing orders on time, he said workers are being asked to follow a testing regime if they receive an alert from the app as a close contact.
"We know that they’re critical workers as part of the food supply chain, so if people are obviously positive or contacted by Test and Trace then they will have to isolate," he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
Empty shelves of water at Tesco in Bathgate, West Lothian
Credit: Katielee Arrowsmith/SWNS
Ice cube and ice cream freezers empty at Sainsbury's in Craigleith, Edinburgh
Credit: Katielee Arrowsmith/SWNS
"If they are pinged we ask them to take a PCR test, if that’s positive then clearly they’ll isolate, but if it’s negative we ask them to come back to work and we have a process of doing lateral flow tests daily away from their workplace, and if that’s negative they can proceed with their work."
Ministers have confused the rules this week, but, as they stand, isolating for 10 days after an alert from the app is the official advice from the Government, but it is not a legal obligation like if contacted by Test and Trace.
Told his testing programme is contrary to Government advice, Mr Selley said: "We think that’s appropriate and safe. The ping is advisory.
"We operate in Covid-safe workplaces and we’re absolutely key workers in terms of the supply chain to hospitals, care homes, prisons, and therefore it’s important for us to be able to keep offering that service to our customers."
Mr Selley said 100 staff from around 20 depots across the country were off isolating on Wednesday, presenting a "real challenge" with deliveries delivered late, or even the next day.
Over half a million 'pinged' at start of July
Boris Johnson announced an exemption for a "very small number of named critical workers" who have received both jabs, ahead of a greater easing of the rules for the fully-vaccinated on August 16.
But the Prime Minister has faced pressure to go further as businesses struggle with shortages as coronavirus cases soar.
Asked about the current exemption, Mr Selley said: "We’ve heard talk of the Government system to apply but there’s no detail as to how to apply, so it’s touted as something that’s out there, but we’ve heard nothing in terms of how one could apply for that status."
This comes as Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has said a list of critical workers who will be eligible for loosened isolation rules if pinged by the Covid app will be drawn up "very soon".
Mr Kwarteng said he was "very concerned" about the situation following reports of shortages on supermarket shelves.
He told Sky News: "We’re going to announce a list of exempt workers. The list of exemptions will be quite narrow because, obviously, you have to draw the line somewhere."