Workers in key sectors to be exempted from UK self-isolation rules

Staff shortages a growing problem as case numbers soar and legal restrictions are relaxed

People working in critical sectors such as transport, food, water and electricity supply in England will be exempted from self-isolation rules as soaring coronavirus cases have created staff shortages across the economy.

Boris Johnson announced the change on the day almost all legal restrictions to combat the virus were dropped, including all social distancing rules and the requirement to wear a face mask.

“We will protect crucial services including the staffing of our hospitals and our care homes,the supplies of food, water, electricity and medicines,the running of our trains, the protection of our borders and the defence of our realm, by making sure that a very small number of named, fully vaccinated, critical workers are able to leave their isolation solely for the work I have described.but for the vast majority of us, myself included, we do need to stick with this system for now,” he told a press conference.

Britain recorded 39,950* new coronavirus cases on Monday, up from 34,471 recorded last Monday and 19 new deaths from the virus. An estimated 1.7 million people are self-isolating after being contacted directly by NHS Test and Trace or alerted by the anonymised contact tracing app.


Possible closures

Supermarkets and pub chains have warned of possible closures or reduced hours because of staff shortages, which have also hit transport services and the NHS itself. The government has rejected calls to reduce the number of people affected by making the app less sensitive or bringing forward from August 16th the date when the fully vaccinated will no longer have to self-isolate.

Nightclubs across Britain opened just after midnight on Monday morning, with no obligation to ask for evidence of vaccination or a negative coronavirus test. But Mr Johnson said that from September, only people who are fully vaccinated will be allowed to enter nightclubs or other large, crowded venues.

Separately, the government said it would not extend mass vaccination to healthy children or teenagers. Those aged 16 and 17 with severe underlying conditions are already eligible but among children between 12 and 15, with severe neurodisabilities, Down’s syndrome, immuno-suppression and multiple or severe learning disabilities will be offered the vaccine.

Mr Johnson appeared at the press conference by video link from Chequers, where he is self-isolating after being identified as a close contact of health secretary Sajid Javid. Mr Javid, who tested positive for coronavirus on Saturday despite being fully vaccinated, is also self-isolating.

Downing Street initially announced on Sunday that the prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak, who was also identified as a close contact of Mr Javid, would avoid self-isolation because they were part of a pilot programme that allowed them to take daily tests instead. But within three hours, the decision was reversed and both men will now remain in self-isolation for 10 days.

Labour leader Keir Starmer said the prime minister only abandoned his plan to avoid self-isolation because the level of public outrage was so clear so quickly.

“The Tories’ instincts were revealed yet again: one rule for them, and another for everyone else. With family events cancelled, businesses having to close and workers having to go without pay, Johnson and Sunak’s attempts to dodge isolation were crass and insensitive,” he said.

*This article was amended on July 19th, 2021

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is London Editor of The Irish Times