Boris Johnson has backed an emergency plan to avoid disruption of UK food supplies caused by Covid-related staff shortages, although the government’s plans were denounced as inadequate by some supermarket bosses.
Ministers confirmed on Thursday night that the government would roll out a testing regime to as many as 500 food-related workplaces “so that contacts who would otherwise be self-isolating can instead take daily tests”.
The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said implementation would begin this week, adding that a scheme announced earlier in the week for named critical workers would also apply to key roles in the food industry.
“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,” said George Eustice, the environment secretary.
Two people with knowledge of a conference call between government officials and supermarket executives said the testing scheme would focus on distribution depots, processing facilities and logistics infrastructure rather than stores.
The British Retail Consortium welcomed the plans but stressed that it needed to be rolled out quickly and that ministers needed to “continue to listen to the concerns of the retail industry”.
But Richard Walker, managing director of Iceland Foods, said that including only processing and distribution roles was “idiotic”.
“You cannot do one half of the chain but not the other . . . we’ll end up with fully stocked stores but too few people to run them.”
Another supermarket executive described the approach as “half-cocked” and said the government was “not hearing what we’re saying”.
“It’s called a supply chain for a reason — it’s only as strong as its weakest link. The success of keeping the nation fed last year was that every link in the chain was protected, not just one”.
Separately, the government outlined further details of a different scheme intended to keep selected staff at work in sectors such as energy, transport, medicine, border control and local government.
Businesses will have to tell the relevant Whitehall department which staff they wish to be able to leave self-isolation and why. They will then receive letters “setting out the named critical workers designated and telling them what measures they and those workers need to follow”.
But the government cautioned that the process “will not cover all or in most cases even the majority” of workers in critical sectors.
That is likely to cause more frustration among business leaders over the government’s approach to containing the so-called ‘pingdemic’. A record 618,913 people were pinged in the week to July 15 and asked to self-isolate.
Tony Danker, CBI chief executive, said before Thursday’s announcement that the approach to self-isolation was “closing down the economy rather than opening it up”.
“Businesses have exhausted their contingency plans and are at risk of grinding to a halt in the next few weeks.”
But Johnson this week called self-isolation “one of the only shots we have left in the locker” to stop the virus from exploding out of control following his decision to remove most remaining Covid restrictions on July 19.
He has defied pressure from business to bring forward from August 16 the proposed date from which double-jabbed adults can avoid self-isolation if “pinged” by the Covid-19 app.
Jeremy Hunt, former health secretary, said the self-isolation rule should be scrapped immediately for people who had been double jabbed, warning: “Otherwise we risk losing social consent.”
Ministers are already preparing the ground for reintroducing restrictions in the autumn, amid fears that the third wave will continue into September when schools return.
Nadhim Zahawi, the vaccines minister, told MPs that compulsory Covid passports could be extended from nightclubs to venues including sports venues, business events and concerts to prove that attenders were fully vaccinated.
The government reserved the right to mandate their use for “crowded unstructured indoor settings, large unstructured outdoor settings and, of course, very large events such as . . . spectator sports”.
Labour has said it would oppose compulsory Covid passports — as would some Tory MPs. Steve Baker, a former minister, said he would not attend the Conservative conference if attenders were forced to prove their vaccine status.
However, ministers admit the threat of widespread use of Covid passports is partly intended to persuade 3m 18 to 30-year-olds to get jabbed — a policy that has been successful in France. But some ministers hope they will not have to carry through with the threat. “They would love it if they didn’t have to do it,” said one government official.
Meanwhile the disruption caused by the third wave continued. Make UK, an industry group, released a survey showing that 13 per cent of companies had stopped production. A quarter said at least 10 per cent of staff were isolating.
Andrew Selley at Bidfood, a food wholesaler, told the BBC that it was asking staff who were “pinged” to take a PCR test and to return to work if it was negative, rather than isolating. Daily lateral flow tests would follow.
Govia, which runs about a quarter of all passenger journeys in the UK, will from Monday reduce weekday services on five routes across the Thameslink and Southern franchises. Bin collections and child care are among areas facing disruption.
The latest infection data, however, showed that the UK recorded a dip in new cases for the first time since the onset of the third wave. A further 39,906 cases were reported on Thursday, down from 48,553 on the same day last week. But deaths continue to climb, with 84 deaths reported on Thursday, compared with 63 on the same day last week.
Oliver Johnson, director of the Institute for Statistical Science at Bristol university, warned that, as with falls in case numbers during September last year before the second wave, the dip could be a “false dawn”.
He speculated it could be driven by a “limited availability of PCR tests or a fall in lateral flow testing in schools ahead of the summer holidays”. He added that falling cases could reflect a drop in social mixing after a “high point” around the Euro 2020 finals in England.