Companies in "critical" industries will have to apply to the Government if they want key workers to avoid self-isolation when pinged by the NHS app, it was confirmed on Thursday.
The Government has named 16 sectors that can benefit from an exemption to the normal rules for people to quarantine for 10 days if they come into contact with someone who tests positive for Covid.
The list includes energy, telecoms, food production and supply, waste, water, essential transport, emergency services, border control and medicines.
However, most organisations in those sectors will not be able to apply for a blanket exemption for staff, as industry leaders had wanted. Employers have to prove they face "major detrimental impact" to business to be eligible for the scheme.
But the guidance makes it clear that "not all, or in most cases even the majority of, workers in critical sectors" will be covered.
Only companies that have received a letter from the Government approving their involvement will be able to to let "named" workers avoid self-isolation. Instead, they can petition the Government to allow a number of employees to continue working despite having been told to self-isolate – with no guarantee of success.
Over half a million 'pinged' at start of July
It raised questions about how quickly approvals could be turned around and how easy it would be to get the green light to take part in the scheme.
The exemption, announced earlier this week, is designed only to apply to a "very small" number of workers "critical" to the national infrastructure.
Downing Street also moved to better protect food supplies by vowing to create up to 500 testing sites to ensure that employees in places such as food distribution centres can keep working.
Companies in food production will be able to apply for exemptions from self-isolation for groups of staff rather than on an individual basis as for other critical industries.
More than 600,000 people were pinged in the week leading to July 14, it was announced on Thursday, with figures suggesting more than one million in total are self-isolating when the numbers contacted by NHS Test and Trace are included.
Business leaders fear the numbers could soar even higher, with close to 50,000 new Covid cases being registered in the UK every day.
The rules are due to change on August 16, when people who have been double jabbed can take daily tests rather than self-isolate if pinged – but calls for that to be brought forward are growing.
Two former Tory health secretaries, Jeremy Hunt and Lord Lansley, called for people who are pinged to be able to take a negative test and return to work in an attempt to ease pressure on the economy.
Lord Lansley, Health Secretary from 2012 to 2014, told The Telegraph: "I think if those pinged then get a negative PCR [result], it should be regarded as a ‘test to release’ and this will be an option for employers to reduce the negative impacts on them."
Supermarkets will be given slightly wider exemptions from the self-isolation rules in a bid to keep food on the shelves. Workers involved in food supply chains will benefit – but frontline shop staff will not.
The measure is designed as a way to pre-empt emerging problems with food getting to shop shelves as a result of so many people being told to self-isolate, after pictures emerged of sparse supermarket shelves.
On Thursday, retail bosses were forced to urge shoppers not to stockpile and said there was "plenty of food" after supermarkets were hit by a "perfect storm" of self-isolating workers and prior staff shortages.
Announcing the new exemption scheme, George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, said: "Food businesses across the country have been the hidden heroes of the pandemic. We are working closely with industry to allow staff to go about their essential work safely with daily testing.
"The last 18 months have demonstrated that we have a highly resilient food supply chain. There are sufficient food supplies in the system and people can and should shop as normal."
A sign on empty shelves requests shoppers in a south London supermarket to remain patient
Credit: Justin Tallis/AFP
Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, said: "Workers in our food and drink sectors have overcome enormous challenges and done everything they can to keep our shelves stocked and our fridges full.
"As we manage this virus and do everything we can to break chains of transmission, daily contact testing of workers in this vital sector will help to minimise the disruption caused by rising cases in the coming weeks, while ensuring workers are not put at risk."
However, a UK airports chief warned that the system of exemptions in a wider string of "critical" sectors is "unworkable" because every individual will have to be assessed separately.
Employers have been told they will only be able to apply for an exemption from self-isolation if they are from a narrow, specified group of staff – and only after they have been pinged. This will have to be done in writing to each industry’s relevant Government department, where a single senior civil servant has been designated to approve each exemption.
The exemption would then apply to that named person only for seven days, for work purposes only. After seven days, the employer must reapply to extend the exemption for the remaining three days of what would have been quarantine.
"This policy area is led by the Department of Health and Social Care who don’t want too many exempt so they’ve made it as restrictive as possible," said a source.
In aviation, it is understood it will only apply to air traffic control and rescue and firefighting crews – and even then, someone pinged in the middle of the night before a 5am shift would be unlikely to get approval in time, said the source.
Karen Dee, the chief executive of the Airport Operators’ Association, said: "As 24-hour operations, we need clear rules that are workable and easy to implement or there is a risk of unnecessary temporary closures.
"Applying for each individual for an exemption from self-quarantine if they are pinged is simply unworkable. The Government must reconsider and exempt categories of workers such as airport security staff, air traffic controllers, ground handling crews and rescue and firefighting staff, from self-isolation.
"With testing sites set up at many airports, ensuring exempted staff undertake regular tests to safeguard public health could be a workable alternative."