Boris Johnson’s government has been warned that Britain’s factories are on the verge of shutting because of the “havoc” caused by the growing army of staff told to self-isolate by the NHS Covid-19 app.
Unite said hundreds of employees are off work at several major factory sites, especially in the automotive sector, after being “pinged” as a Covid contact by the app.
Latest figures from the NHS show that more than 500,000 alerts were sent to users of the app in the week to 7 July – a rise of almost 50 per cent on the previous week and the highest figure so far.
A senior minister said the government was “concerned” by the number of people off work, but suggested a planned tweaking to the app’s sensitivity – to reduce the number of people alerted – would not happen for several weeks yet.
“We’re going to give further thought to how [the app] is a proportionate response,” said communities secretary Robert Jenrick on Thursday. “The government is going to be setting out its plans in the coming weeks.”
Unite said some factories are struggling to operate because of app-enforced absences, saying it had been told by one major engine supplier that delays to orders are so severe that work may be permanently moved to China.
The union said the government should not wait until 16 August to allow fully vaccinated adults to avoid self-isolation – warning that failure to make changes before 19 July would lead to mass deletion of the app.
Unite’s assistant general secretary Steve Turner said: “No one is advocating for coronavirus controls to go out the window … But the reports Unite is receiving from our members and their employers are extremely worrying.”
The union leader said: “It is not an exaggeration to say factories are on the verge of shutting and that at some sites hundreds of staff are off work.”
Mr Turner added: “It is clear that something has to be done in time for 19 July, or else people will simply start deleting the app en masse to avoid isolation notices. There will be public health consequences if test and trace becomes seen as a nuisance.”
Reports suggest as many as 700 workers were self-isolating at Nissan’s factory in Sunderland. The car giant would not confirm the number, but said there were serious staff shortages at its biggest UK plant.
“Production in certain areas of the plant has been adjusted as we manage a number of staff being required to self-isolate following close contact with Covid-19,” a spokesman said.
Stephen Phipson, chief executive of Make UK, the body representing UK manufacturers, said that “in some cases, up to 20 per cent of the workforce is now isolating”.
The government has rejected calls to bring forward planned changes to self-isolation rules from 16 August to 19 July. But there were hopes the sensitivity of the app could be quickly “tuned” to reduce the number of alerts sent out.
However, it understood that tweaks to how close and how long a person has to be in close contact with someone with Covid before the app “pings” are still several weeks away.
Officials are estimating how many extra infections could result if fewer people are asked by the app to isolate, according to The Times.
NHS leaders have pleaded with ministers to consider a special exemption for health service staff from current self-isolation rules, with some hospitals experiencing serious staff shortages.
Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive at NHS Providers, told The Independent last week that ministers should create an opt-out for health workers “as soon as possible” to allow staff to ignore the app alerts.
About one in five adults in the UK have deleted the Covid-19 app from their phone, according to a poll by Savanta ComRes. The survey also found that more than a third of young people, aged between 18 and 34, have deleted the app.
The Independent has contacted the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) for comment.