People can ignore being ‘pinged’ by the NHS app if they think it is the ‘right thing’ to do, a government minister suggested today amid rising fears over mass self-isolation bringing the UK grinding to a halt.
Paul Scully struck a starkly different tone from Boris Johnson‘s press briefing last night, when the PM insisted that self-isolation rules must stay in place to control soaring infections.
The business minister stressed that obeying the app was not a legal requirement, and people were being encouraged to ‘make decisions on what’s best for them’.
No10 quickly tried to slap down Mr Scully, insisting it is ‘crucial’ people isolate when told to do so by the app or by contact tracers.
But the intervention will fuel mounting confusion about how the public should behave as rising cases spark a wave of quarantine instructions. Businesses have warned they are being forced to limit hours or shut down as so many staff are absent, while there have been reports of empty supermarket shelves, overflowing bins and trains being delayed or cancellled.
BP today highlighted ‘fuel supply issues’ at some garages, blaming ‘industry-wide driver shortages’ together with the closure of a distribution due to staff isolating.
Around 1.7million are thought to be isolating currently, with the problem set to get much worse as cases keep rising.
However, the PM dismissed calls to make the app less sensitive or bring forward a daily testing scheme for the fully vaccinated, due to come into force from August 16.
Instead there are only exemptions for very limited groups of key workers, including some frontline NHS staff and parts of the food chain.
Paul Scully (left) struck a starkly different tone from Boris Johnson’s press briefing last night, when the PM (right) insisted that self-isolation rules must stay in place to control soaring infections
Infections are currently running at about 45,000 a day (yellow line shows cases increasing since May) but deaths are still flat at about 40 a day (pink line shows fatalities in the third wave). For comparison, the last time cases hit this level when the second wave began to spiral out of control (orange line) there were more than 600 daily deaths
BP today highlighted ‘fuel supply issues’ at some garages, blaming ‘industry-wide driver shortages’ together with the closure of a distribution due to staff isolating
Stricken businesses face disaster amid wave of self-isolation
The Factory Tap, a real ale bar in Kendal, is having to close early at 10pm on Friday and 9pm on Saturday because of a shortage of staff having to self-isolate.
The venue wrote on Facebook: ‘We need 30% more staff to serve 75 per cent of our normal custom. Having staff isolate means we cannot operate and would have to close.
‘We have been closing earlier than normal 10pm Friday and Saturday 9pm for the rest of the week, we intend to continue this.
‘We close at these times for a very good reason, we are either understaffed and unable to provide the service required or are knackered and have just had enough!’
The Long Eaton Art Room, a community art centre in Nottingham, has had to abandon drop-in sessions and only run pre-arranged workshops after being forced to close several times due to staff being pinged.
Explaining the decision, they wrote on Facebook: ‘Every time we get pinged by the app we need to close, we are aiming to avoid that as much as possible and feel that set workshops will help us.’
Shakespeare’s Coffee Shop in Skelmersdale, Lancashire, is closing for the week.
The management wrote on Facebook: ‘It is with great regret that we have had to close the coffee shop and library this week due to lots of staff isolating, after being informed by the COVID app. It’s ‘Freedom Day’ and everyone has to stay at home. The irony.’
MR Barbers in Ely will remain shut until July 24 while its barbers are self-isolating.
Karl Foster, Director of MR Barbers group, said that the Ely branch is one of three barbershops in the nation-wide chain affected by the ‘pingdemic’.
‘We have 10 barbers that would normally be serving around 750 clients over the 10-day isolation period,’ he told the Ely Standard. ‘That’s a lot of potentially unhappy customers and a lot of lost business.’
Mark Cribb, owner of the Urban Reef restaurant and bar in Bournemouth, said he was losing thousands of pounds a night after being forced to shut his seafront bar on Mondays and Tuesdays due to staff shortages.
‘The concern is that all of a sudden the pingdemic is going to take over,’ he told Channel 4 News.
‘In one of our restaurants last week we had over 100 people booked in on a Monday but one of our chefs got pinged so we had to phone all of them to cancel.
‘Usually on a lovely evening we’d take thousands of pounds but on a Monday and Tuesday night at the moment we have had to close because of the lack of staff.’
Tracy Standish, the owner of Bowl Central, a Bournemouth bowling venue, told Channel Four News: ‘We’ve got a supervisor isolating at the moment. Every day you are concerned to get the news that you are going to lose more vital members.
‘At the moment we are trading seven days a week at the moment but you are constantly under pressure. It is very stressful.’
Although it has never been a legal requirement to obey the app’s instructions, the official NHS guidance has been that people should ‘self-isolate immediately’ when told to.
Mr Scully told Times Radio: ‘It’s important to understand the rules. You have to legally isolate if you are on the… contacted by Test and Trace, or if you’re trying to claim isolation payments.
‘The app is there to give… to allow you to make informed decisions. And I think by backing out of mandating a lot of things, we’re encouraging people to really get the data in their own hands to be able to make decisions on what’s best for them, whether they’re employer or an employee.’
Asked whether this meant people should or should not self-isolate if ‘pinged’, he said: ‘We want to encourage people to still use the app to be able to do the right thing, because we estimate it saves around 8,000 lives.’
However, he added that it was ‘up to individuals and employers’.
A No 10 spokeswoman said: ‘Isolation remains the most important action people can take to stop the spread of the virus.
‘Given the risk of having and spreading the virus when people have been in contact with someone with Covid it is crucial people isolate when they are told to do so, either by NHS Test and Trace or by the NHS covid app.
‘Businesses should be supporting employees to isolate, they should not be encouraging them to break isolation.’
Shadow health minister Justin Madders said: ‘The Government making it up as they go along.
‘Ministers mix messages, change approach and water down proposals when the public and businesses need clarity and certainty.
‘If this is a true change in approach on the app, why didn’t the Prime Minister set this out last night?
‘Yet again there is more confusion and incompetence from the heart of government at the expense of public health. They need to get a grip.’
Professor Sir Jonathan Montgomery, who chaired the ethics advisory board for NHSx on its contact tracing app, told Times Radio the Government needed to give clearer guidance to people about what to do when told to self-isolate.
‘When we had no protection the risk was the same for everybody. If that risk is now reduced because someone is double-vaccinated it feels as though we need more sophisticated advice,’ Sir Jonathan said.
‘If we are visiting an elderly relative or a cancer patient then take the ping seriously but if you are doing something relatively Covid-friendly then maybe make a different decision.’
Professor John Edmunds, a member of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies which advises ministers said: ‘Contact tracing and self-isolation play an important role in stopping cases getting out of control and preventing deaths.
‘It’s important we maintain these measures as stringently as we can.
‘We have one of the highest rates of cases in the world right now.
‘The NHS has been under strain for a long time and they are busy trying to catch up on operations and are very, very busy.
‘So to put them under more pressure now is going to be awkward.’
Meanwhile, the Prime Minister was facing a backlash over his plans to make coronavirus vaccination compulsory for nightclubs and other crowded venues in the autumn.
Clubs, backbench Tories and opposition MPs criticised Boris Johnson’s announcement on Monday – the day that clubs in England were allowed to open for the first time since March last year.
Night Time Industries Association chief executive Michael Kill accused the Government of ‘an absolute shambles’.
’80 per cent of nightclubs have said they do not want to implement Covid passports, worrying about difficulties with enforcing the system and a reduction in spontaneous consumers, as well as being put at a competitive disadvantage with pubs and bars that aren’t subject to the same restrictions and yet provide similar environments.’
Mark Harper, the Conservative former chief whip who chairs the Covid Recovery Group of Tory lockdown-sceptics, criticised the plans as ‘effectively moving to compulsory vaccination’.
There have been reports of empty shelves in supermarkets amid disruption to supply chains and huge numbers of staff off self-isolating
Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, the Conservative chairman of the Health and Social Care Committee, questioned why the Government was delaying the plans until the autumn.
Labour’s shadow health minister Justin Madders said: ‘How can it be safe to go to nightclubs now, with no protective measures, if in September it will require double jab status? It makes no sense.’
Mr Scully, the minister for small business, said the policy would not be introduced until the detail is right.
He suggested that pubs would not be included, with the use of the vaccine passports aimed at nightclubs and ‘larger ticketed events’.
‘There are a number of sporting venues that are already looking at voluntarily doing this,’ he told Sky News
Mr Scully admitted to having reservations about the plan: ‘I’m not comfortable that Government is mandating anything frankly, I’m a very libertarian Conservative, I want to be able to back off, that’s why yesterday was an opportunity for Government to back off from so many different things and let people live their lives.
‘But what we have to do is make sure that people will also live their lives safely, the NHS can function safely, and these are the challenges that we still have to do.
‘So it’s incredibly frustrating, it’s incredibly complicated to work through the detail, but that’s the challenge we have.’