Fears are mounting over a ‘pingdemic’ today as it emerged one in five hospitality workers are self-isolating and a record 830,000 children missed school for Covid-related reasons last week.
The disastrous situation emerged amid pleas for the rules to be eased immediately to avoid sections of the economy and society effectively grinding to a halt as cases surge in the ‘exit wave’.
In evidence to the Commons Business Committee today, retail and hospitality industry representatives warned they were being crippling by the sheer volume of quarantine edicts, coming on top of wider labour shortages caused by people getting other jobs during the pandemic.
They pointed out that most of their workers are too young to benefit from a potential exemption for the double-jabbed due to take effect next month.
Meanwhile official figures showed the proportion of state school pupils absent in connection with the virus has more than doubled in a fortnight, with 11.2 per cent of pupils off on July 8.
And there are claims that NHS trusts have started telling staff they do not need to obey ‘pings’ from the government app telling them they have to self-isolate due to contact with a positive case.
Nicola Sturgeon gazumped Boris Johnson again this afternoon by declaring that Scotland will let fully vaccinated individuals off quarantine rules from August 9, a week before it is due to happen in England.
But government documents on ‘Freedom Day’ released overnight cast doubt on even that timetable, saying the exemption is only ‘likely to come into effect later in the summer’.
The details also lay out that the Test, Trace & Isolate system is set to stay in force until at least next year.
Ministers have warned that daily cases could top 100,000 by next month – raising the prospect that millions of close contacts of the infected will be ‘pinged’ and ordered to isolate for up to 10 days.
One in five hospitality and retail workers are self-isolating as surging cases spark a ‘pingdemic’ – and the problem is getting worse
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade group UKHospitality, told MPs 60 per cent of staff are under 30
The number of contact tracing alerts has been spiking as the Delta variant fuels an increase in cases
Covid-related absence in schools hits new high
Covid-related pupil absence in England has hit a new record high since all students fully returned to class in March this year, with more than 830,000 children out of school last week, Government figures show.
About one in nine (11.2 per cent) state school pupils did not attend class for Covid-19 related reasons on July 8, up from 8.5 per cent on July 1 and 5.1 per cent on June 24, according to Department for Education (DfE) statistics.
These include approximately 747,000 children self-isolating due to a possible contact with a Covid-19 case, 35,000 pupils with a suspected case of coronavirus and 39,000 with a confirmed case of Covid-19.
The latest figures come after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson announced last week that the use of ‘bubbles’ in schools and colleges in England will come to an end as the country moves towards easing lockdown restrictions.
Current rules say that children have to self-isolate for 10 days if another pupil in their bubble – which can be an entire year group at secondary school – tests positive for coronavirus.
But Mr Williamson has said it will be up to individual schools and colleges as to whether they scrap the bubble system on Monday ahead of the summer holidays, following the move to Step 4 of the road map.
Education union leaders have criticised the Government for simply ‘hoping for the best’ for the autumn term, as they warned that Covid-19 case numbers could get worse in schools and colleges without action.
Boris Johnson last night pulled the trigger on the legal unlocking from July 19, but warned Covid curbs could return in September if new freedoms are abused.
Kate Nicholls, chief executive of trade group UKHospitality, told the MPs: ‘We have one in five hospitality staff in isolation, and we have particular concerns as around 60 per cent of our staff are under 30.
‘The changes to allow double-vaccinated people to avoid isolation won’t kick in in a material way until September because the workforce won’t have been able to have their second jabs until then.
‘We believe we need to have a test-to-release policy to help them work.
‘For many of our small businesses, if you lose one or two of your workers you don’t have enough people to open at all, and obviously that has huge ramifications.’
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said there was a similar proportion of shop worker absences due to isolation rules.
‘We are seeing some vacancy rates of around 20 per cent,’ she told MPs.
‘And only some of that is directly people with Covid – a lot is the indirect consequence of having to isolate, irrespective of tests or whether one has had two vaccines.
‘I think it is an immediate issue that comes with the lifting of restrictions.’
The comments were made during the latest business committee regarding the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ms Nicholls added that hospitality firms have around a tenth of jobs currently unfilled, with some workers switching to other careers during the enforced closure of large parts of the sector.
She said: ‘We are short of 200,000 workers and actively trying to recruit for those.
‘You have a hot and tighter labour market than might have been anticipated.’
Ghislaine Halpenny, director of strategy and external affairs at the British Property Federation, also told the committee that about £6.4 billion in rent debt had accrued since the start of the pandemic.
Last month, the Government extended the ban on commercial evictions until March 2022 in a bid to help firms affected by the pandemic.
Ms Halpenny said most landlords and tenants have reached agreements over rents or made payments.
She added that current proposals for an arbitration system to deal with rent disputes looks like a ‘blunt instrument’.
‘The proposed arbitration scheme feels like a bit of a sledgehammer to crack a nut,’ she said.
‘It will be large, complicated and expensive to put together and potentially waste taxpayer money.
‘We don’t see why the courts, with some additional guidance, shouldn’t be used for that backstop process.’
Timpson’s shoe repairs said more than 100 of their staff had been forced to isolate.
Sir John Timpson, founder and owner of the chain, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘We are 140 people down… people who have got to be home to look after children or people forced to isolate due to the Test and Trace app.’
Health Secretary Sajid Javid previously announced that from August 16 fully-vaccinated individuals should be let off the quarantine requirement.
Those aged under 18 are also set to benefit from the change from the same date.
Fellow minister Nadhim Zahawi said at the weekend that the government is also considering replacing the isolation rule with daily testing more widely.
Meanwhile, officials are working on making the NHS app less sensitive so that fewer people are caught by the isolation order.
But after Mr Johnson struck a far more cautious tone last night, the guidance suggested that the exemptions are not a definite commitment.
‘The Government intends to exempt people who have been fully vaccinated from the requirement to self-isolate if they are a contact of a positive case, with a similar exemption for under 18s.
‘Anyone who tests positive will still need to self-isolate regardless of their vaccination status. Further details will be published in due course and the changes are likely to come into effect later in the summer.’
The documents also insisted Test & Trace will stay in place for many months to come.
‘Test, Trace and Isolate has an important ongoing role in managing the virus and reduces the risk of potentially dangerous variants spreading,’ the guidance said.
‘The Government expects the Test, Trace and Isolate system will remain necessary through the autumn and winter.’
The coronavirus restrictions which will be removed from July 19
The legal enforcement rules and financial support for isolation will also be kept in place.
‘Until at least the end of September, self-isolation enforcement and support will otherwise continue as it is now,’ the government said.
Speaking at the Downing Street briefing last night, Mr Johnson said: ‘I cannot say this powerfully or emphatically enough – this pandemic is not over. This disease coronavirus continues to carry risks for you and for your family. We cannot simply revert instantly from Monday, July 19, to life as it was before Covid.’
Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty said families should still ‘avoid unnecessary meetings’ with other households with normal life returning only ‘very slowly’.
Mark Harper, chairman of the Covid Recovery Group of Tory MPs, said even the limited taste of freedom could prove short-lived.
‘Enjoy summer if you can,’ he said. ‘Winter is coming – and I fear that Covid restrictions will return.’