Freedom Day looms
PM urged to end ‘pingdemic’ amid staff shortages
Boris Johnson intended to rake advantage of a scheme not widely available to the public
Boris Johnson is under pressure to end the “pingdemic” problem which threatens to bring swathes of the economy to a standstill.
Critics have spoken out as tens of thousands of workers are forced into quarantine after receiving a Covid alert from the NHS tracing system.
An estimated 1.8 million people are still self-isolating leading to cancelled trains and shortages of supplies in shops and factories.
Key NHS workers will be exempted from the quarantine rule to help avoid hospitals cancelling operations because of staff shortages.
The CBI said there was an urgent need ‘to allow double-jabbed individuals not to self-isolate if they have been informed by NHS Test and Trace that they have come into contact with a Covid positive individual’.
The British Retail Consortium called for pinged store staff to be able to continue to work if they had a negative test result.
It comes after a farcical weekend which saw Mr Johnson forced into a quick u-turn after his attempt to side-step self-isolation rules prompted nationwide outrage.
It was announced earlier that the Prime Minister and Chancellor Rishi Sunak would use a little-known pilot scheme to avoid having to go into quarantine after they had been in contact with Health Secretary Sajid Javid who has tested positive for Covid-19.
Downing Street said the pilot scheme, involving daily testing, would allow them to work on essential government business.
But there was an immediate backlash from politicians, business leaders and the public, forcing a quick change of mind.
Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth had claimed that for the PM and Chancellor to use a special scheme would be “like one rule for Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak and something else for the rest of us.”
The PM and Chancellor recognised public feeling and said they would instead join thousands, including holidaymakers, who are having to self-isolate.
Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick said the scheme was being used by 20 public organisations including Border Force and Transport for London.
A No10 spokesman said: “The Prime Minister has been contacted by NHS Test and Trace to say he is a contact of someone with Covid.
“He was at Chequers when contacted by Test and Trace and will remain there to isolate. He will not be taking part in the testing pilot.
“He will continue to conduct meetings with ministers remotely. The Chancellor has also been contacted and will also isolate as required and will not be taking part in the pilot.”
In a tweet Mr Sunak said: “Whilst the test and trace pilot is fairly restrictive, allowing only essential government business, I recognise that even the sense that the rules aren’t the same for everyone is wrong.
“To that end I’ll be self isolating as normal and not taking part in the pilot.”
An unimpressed Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “The way the Prime Minister conducts himself creates chaos, makes for bad government and has deadly consequences for the British public.
Sir Keir Starmer: PM causing chaos (pic: Terry Murden)
“Yet again the Conservatives fixed the rules to benefit themselves, and only backtracked when they were found out. They robbed the bank, got caught and have now offered to give the money back.”
The latest developments emerged amid concerns over disruption to food supplies, transport networks and industry as more people are forced to stay away from work.
The NHS has warned of staff shortages, and unions say factories could start closing with in days.
Some London Underground services were unable to operate due to a lack of staff.
Pubs chain Greene King has been forced to close 33 pubs in the past week.
Sajid Javid has tested positive
One of Britain’s largest retailers warned that there could be gaps on shelves because of difficulties with suppliers.
Almost all restrictions are lifted in England today, while Scotland moves to Level 0 which means guidance on face coverings remain in place and mass gatherings are still prohibited. More people will be allowed to meet indoors and attend weddings and funerals.
In view of rising cases of Covid and the potential for serious disruption across the economy Mr Johnson was also said to have abandoned plans for a “Churchillian” speech to herald so-called Freedom Day in England.
There had been plans for a confidence-boosting speech by the Prime Minister at an historic venue associated with the wartime leader in order to celebrate the end of restrictions – including social distancing and legal limits on gatherings.
But Mr Johnson is no longer referring to the moment as ‘irreversible’ as scientists warn of a looming third wave with variants of Covid that are resistant to the vaccines.
Holidaymakers and other travellers face a chaotic summer as new quarantine restrictions come into effect.
Fully jabbed travellers returning to Scotland, England and Wales from France will still have to self-isolate from Monday.
While those arriving from other amber list countries will not need to isolate for 10 days, the easing will not apply to France due to “persistent” cases of the Beta variant, first identified in South Africa.
There are concerns vaccines may not work as well against the Beta variant.
The more infectious Delta variant – first identified in India – accounts for almost all new cases in the UK.
Mr Javid said: “We have always been clear that we will not hesitate to take rapid action at our borders to stop the spread of Covid-19 and protect the gains made by our successful vaccination programme.
“With restrictions lifting on Monday across the country, we will do everything we can to ensure international travel is conducted as safely as possible, and protect our borders from the threat of variants.”
On Saturday evening the Scottish government confirmed that it was applying the same rules as UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps announced last seek.
Scottish Transport Secretary Michael Matheson said: “Nobody wants travel restrictions in place for any longer than is absolutely necessary.
“We have been clear that the green, amber and red lists can change at short notice. It important we act quickly to limit the risk of importation of variants of concern which could undermine the rollout of our vaccine programme.”
Michael Matheson: ‘important we act quickly’
Travel firms have criticised the move, accusing the UK government of causing confusion.
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of industry group Airlines UK, said: “These random rule changes make it almost impossible for travellers and industry to plan ahead, and can only further undermine consumer trust at the very peak of the summer season.
Anyone who has been in France in the previous 10 days will need to quarantine on arrival in the UK in their own accommodation and will need a day two and day eight test, regardless of their vaccination status.
This includes any fully vaccinated individual who transits through France from either a green or another amber country.
Exceptions for some Eurostar travellers
But ministers indicated that Eurostar passengers on services travelling through France would not need to quarantine if their train did not stop in the country.
Existing amber list exemptions for key workers such as hauliers will remain in place.
Travellers from France will still have the option of shortening their quarantine period through the Test to Release scheme – if they pay for a test on day five and are negative.
For arrivals from other amber list countries, the requirement to quarantine is being scrapped for the fully vaccinated and under-18s from Monday in all parts of the UK.