Key workers will be able to avoid self-isolation in Scotland under a “very limited” scheme which businesses warned was overly restrictive and risked becoming mired in bureaucratic logjams.
Nicola Sturgeon on Friday announced changes that will mean double-vaccinated staff in some sectors who would normally have to stay at home after coming into contact with a positive case could be handed an exemption if they meet a series of strict conditions.
However, businesses raised fears that the rules, which stipulate that exemptions would only be approved on an “case-by-case” basis by the Scottish Government, would lead to a deluge of applications and inevitable delays.
Hospitality bosses also expressed anger that they were not covered by the scheme, despite claiming that staffing shortages were crippling businesses due to high numbers of workers ordered to self-isolate.
Scotland has largely escaped the ‘pingdemic’ seen south of the border due to differences in how its separate NHS app works. However, around 158,000 individuals have been identified as close contacts of people who tested positive over the past month by contact tracers, with the vast majority ordered to isolate for 10 days.
Over half a million ‘pinged’ at start of July
Businesses applying for an exemption in Scotland will have to go through a more onerous process than in England, and will have to meet six tests including having to prove how isolation is impacting on “critical functions and services” and explaining other steps taken first to alleviate pressures.
Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said the changes were a “step in the right direction” but would still leave many businesses to suffer as exemptions “do not go far enough”.
“Even for those sectors who will qualify for this critical worker scheme, the criteria and process for applying for exemption is overly restrictive and requires a lot of evidence,” she said.
“An application-based process is very likely to create delays and logjams as each application is to be considered on a case-by-case basis.
“The Scottish Government must be adequately resourced to respond fairly and quickly to businesses, who require fast turnaround on decisions.
“They must also consider alternative measures for non-critical roles to allow for more double vaccinated people to avoid self-isolation.”
The Scottish system will be open to workers in 13 critical industries such as defence, emergency services, finance, transport, government and food supplies, if staff shortages threaten operations.
Workers will be able to opt-out of the scheme, even if they qualify, meaning they can choose to self-isolate against the wishes of their employer.
The NHS has come under particular strain due to high numbers of staff absences, with NHS Lanarkshire cancelling non-emergency surgeries and saying yesterday it had been forced to focus only on critical services due to intense pressure. A separate exemptions scheme will be announced for health and social care staff.
If the government deems a critical role can be exempt, the worker will still have to prove they have had two doses of coronavirus vaccine at least two weeks prior to any close contact with a positive case, have a negative PCR test and agree to carry out lateral flow tests for 10 days.
Exemptions will last only for as long “as there is an immediate risk to business or service continuity”.
Stephen Montgomery, spokesman for the Scottish Hospitality Group, said his sector had been “pushed aside” in the programme.
"Hospitality is in the middle of a recruitment crisis,” he said. “The sector does not have the luxury of pulling 10, 20, or 30 new staff out of a cupboard in the office because everyone else has been pinged as a close contact. We should have the same quarantine exemptions.”
The Scottish Retail Consortium said it was “vexing” that store staff did not appear to be within the scheme’s scope but said it may help with supply chains, with some supermarket shelves left empty due to high numbers of workers such as lorry drivers self-isolating.
Meanwhile, trade unions criticised the changes, claiming they amounted to gambling with the health of workers.
Ms Sturgeon said that exemptions may apply “more generously” in future after a chaotic launch of the scheme. The Scottish Government suggested on Thursday evening that changes would not be unveiled until next month, only to leak details hours later after it emerged exemptions would be applied in England.
"We have seen significant staff shortages in a small number of organisations in recent days and we have worked with them to protect services,” the First Minister said.
"However, this is a very limited change at this stage, to be applied on a case-by-case basis and only where absolutely necessary.”
Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Tories, said there remained unanswered questions about how the scheme would work, such as how long exemptions would last and how this would be decided.
He added: “There are also real concerns that the SNP are going to swamp businesses and individuals with layers of bureaucracy. The application process should be as smooth as possible at a time when businesses are already under huge pressure.”