An emergency government plan to stop the spiraling “pingemia” from hitting the food supply has fallen into chaos, with industry executives condemning the program as an “absolute disaster” that has done more harm than good.
While rail services were also disrupted on Saturday by the number of workers isolating themselves, airports reported long queues at passport controls and the hospitality industry warned of a summer of closures, Downing St has defied growing calls for a complete relaxation of quarantine rules due August 16.
In an attempt to prevent more empty supermarket shelves and avoid greater economic damage, ministers bowed last Thursday to continued pressure from the food industry, announcing that around 10,000 workers in the sector would be exempt from the rules. if they tested negative daily. Others in key sectors of the economy and vital public services are also included in the emergency plan.
But several food industry executives responsible for the supply chain told the Observer the measures had been so mismanaged and poorly communicated that they had exacerbated the crisis.
James Bielby, of the Wholesale Distribution Federation (FWD), which supplies food to outlets other than supermarkets, said the industry still had no idea who was actually on the list. exempt groups. Of the 500 companies assumed to be included, only 3% had been notified.
“It’s total chaos. There are 15 companies that were part of the initial journey [of the scheme] Friday, but there must be 500 companies in total, it’s totally opaque, ”he said.
Shane Brennan, CEO of the Cold Chain Federation, the organization representing companies that transport frozen and chilled food, said: “Several days after the Prime Minister told us the food supply chain was critical and would be exempt, we still do not have a definitive list of who will be exempt and what is required of them. Businesses are fighting to keep food on the shelves, and I regret that despite the best intentions in some places, the government has done more harm than good.
“We live from day to day. Companies that can work are doing their best. But no one feels confident predicting what will happen tomorrow, and few are convinced that those responsible have a grip on the situation. “
The sense of confusion and crisis has completely overshadowed the government’s efforts to open up the economy since the so-called Freedom Day last Monday, which was supposed to mark a return to something close to normal after 16 months of restrictions. of Covid.
Instead, more than a million people have spent the first week of “freedom” in self-isolation – threatening food shortages, transportation chaos and widespread disruption over the summer vacation period.
British Frozen Food Federation chief executive Richard Harrow said ministers had failed to understand how the food supply industry worked: “This shows that once again the government does not understand where point the food supply chain is connected. Only opening the game is unlikely to solve the overall problem.
Former health secretary and Chairman of the Commons Health and Social Services Select Committee Jeremy Hunt warned the government risked “losing social consent” for self-isolation unless it did not. ‘immediately relaxes the quarantine rules.
But the British Medical Association said the problem was not the ‘excessive ping’ of the NHS Covid-19 app but that the government’s coronavirus strategy has caused ‘a surge in the number of cases’. Its chairman of the board, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, said the isolation figures are a “direct result of the lack of effective measures by the government that allow the virus to spread across the country.”
The number of cases, however, has started to decline. Saturday’s figure was 31,795 – the seventh in a row that daily cases have been lower than the recent high of 54,674. Scientists so far are unsure whether that means the peak has passed or if the numbers will rise again as more people take off their masks and renounce social distancing after ‘freedom day’.
Bielby added that despite repeatedly asking the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for more clarity since the exemptions were announced last Thursday, his organization was not wiser yesterday. “They don’t really know at the moment, the scheme was done totally on the fly, on the fly. They haven’t thought about it, ”he said.
Bielby also scorned a separate government system designed to allow employers to obtain self-isolation exemptions for their own key personnel. A Defra email address, he said, had been created to allow employers to lobby for an exemption for staff who had been interviewed. “If you get a ping at night and have to go to work the next day, the idea of you letting your boss email your hotline and get a response in time to start the morning shift is everything.” just absolutely ridiculous, ”he said.
Other business groups from across sectors have called on ministers to expand exemptions. Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association, said that without a concerted effort to vaccinate young people and a stipend for hospitality workers to avoid self-isolation when tested negative, pubs and bars would be forced to close in high season.
“NHS Test & Trace is a huge problem for our ads. Already, pubs are closing or drastically reducing their hours of operation due to staff shortages caused by app pings – despite staff testing negative on lateral flow tests, ”she said. “Forty-three percent of pub workers are between the ages of 18 and 25, which means they’re at the back of the pack for vaccines and won’t have their second shot for months. We urge the government to work with us to find a reasonable solution to this problem that ensures the safety of staff and customers. “
As ministers plan to expand the exemption scheme to more key workers, including police, firefighters and the freight industry, with 200 more workplace testing sites being established, a source high-level government said it was not expected August 16 date.
Outcry from food and other industry leaders over the need for workers who have been questioned by the NHS Covid app to self-isolate has escalated as data from the Office for National Statistics showed that Covid-19 cases continued to increase, with around one in 75 people infected in England. Estimates of the number of positive tests – 741,700 – in the week to July 17 are the highest since the week to January 30.