Exemptions that will enable more than 10,000 people in the food sector in England to avoid self-isolation if they are notified by the NHS Covid-19 app will not be extended to other sectors such as hospitality, the environment secretary has said.
The current wave of the pandemic sweeping across Britain was also likely to get worse before it gets better, according to George Eustice, who added the government was “most worried” about when the two- to three-week lag in hospitalisations kicked in after infections.
Workers in England from 16 key sectors including health, transport and energy will not have to isolate after being pinged by the Covid app, as it was revealed that more than 600,000 people in England and Wales were sent self-isolation alerts last week.
Eustice also ruled out the possibility of the exemption being extended to the hospitality industry before a planned date of 16 August.
“The reason we’ve made a special exception for food is for very obvious reasons – we need to make sure that we maintain our food supply, we will never take risks with our food supply,” he told Sky News.
Asked if the government had been concerned about food shortages, Eustice told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that it had been made aware last week of supply chain deliveries becoming late and problems around “order fulfilment”.
As shoppers shared images of empty shelves blamed on a shortage of workers, the government also announced on Thursday night that a pilot daily testing programme would be expanded to up to 500 food and drink supply chain employers – though retail staff in supermarkets will not qualify.
It was easier to manage staff shortages on a store level, Eustice said, when asked why supermarket staff were not included in exemptions, adding: “The main reason is that would be a really significant undertaking, as you’re talking then thousands of different shops, and many more people, and we still want to maintain the test, trace and isolate system.
“You also have to bear in mind why we’re doing this and we are trying to still just dampen the pace and the velocity at which this infection is spreading because we have to keep a very close eye on those hospitalisations.
“We know that the most important thing is to ensure that those main arteries in our food supply chain keep working, that the lorries keep going from depots to get goods to store and that the food manufacturers can continue to manufacture the goods to get it to the depots.
In terms of how the exemptions would apply to the food sector, Eustice said the government had identified close to 500 “key” sites, including about 170 supermarket depots, a couple of hundred manufacturers such as bread makers, dairy companies and others.
“All of the people working in those key strategic sites, distribution depots and those manufacturing facilities will be able to use this scheme, and probably well over 10,000 people,” he said.
Asked whether the coronavirus situation was likely to get worse before it gets better, he replied: “Absolutely.”
He told Sky News: “It is likely to because hospitalisations do follow the infection rate by two to three weeks and so that’s why we’re doing this.”
Separately, he suggested coronavirus testing could be part of the government’s Covid passports scheme.
“We’ve made clear this week that when it comes to the younger people who want to attend nightclubs, we’re going to make it a requirement from the end of September that they would need effectively to be double-jabbed in order to go into those venues.”
When asked if this would also apply to football stadiums, he said: “We’re looking at … there’s a range of different approaches you can have. You can have testing arrangements so that people have to test before they go to those venues, so that you don’t have people with the infection and the virus going into those, you know that double-jabbing is always obviously an option.