An emergency government plan to prevent the spiralling “pingdemic” from hitting food supplies has descended into chaos, with industry leaders condemning the scheme as an “absolute disaster” that has done more harm than good.
As train services were also disrupted on Saturday by the number of workers self-isolating, airports reported long queues at passport controls and the hospitality industry warned of a summer of closures, Downing St defied growing calls to bring forward a full relaxation of quarantine rules from the scheduled date of 16 August.
In an attempt to prevent more empty supermarket shelves and avert wider economic damage, ministers bowed last Thursday to persistent pressure from the food industry, announcing that around 10,000 workers in the sector would be exempted from the rules if they tested negative on a daily basis. Others in key sectors of the economy and vital public services are also included in the emergency plan.
But several food industry leaders responsible for the supply chain told the Observer the measures had been so badly mishandled and poorly communicated that they had made the crisis worse.
James Bielby, of the Federation of Wholesale Distribution (FWD), which supplies food to outlets other than supermarkets, said the industry still had no idea who was actually on the list of exempted groups. Of the 500 businesses supposedly included, only 3% had been notified.
“It’s total chaos. There are 15 businesses who were part of the initial run through [of the scheme] on Friday, but there’s supposed to be 500 businesses in total, it’s entirely opaque,” he said.
Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, the organisation representing companies that move frozen and chilled foods, said: “Several days after the prime minister told us the food supply chain was critical and would be exempt, we still don’t have a definitive list of who will be exempt and what is required of them. Businesses are fighting to keep food on shelves, and I regret that despite the best intentions in some places, government has done more harm than good.
“We are living day-by-day. Those businesses that can work are doing their absolute best. But no one feels confident predicting what will happen tomorrow and few have confidence that those in charge 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 so-called Freedom Day last Monday, which was supposed to mark a return to something close to normality after 16 months of Covid restrictions.
Instead, more than a million people spent the first week of “freedom” self-isolating – threatening food shortages, transport chaos, and widespread disruption over the summer holiday period.
British Frozen Food Federation chief executive Richard Harrow said ministers had failed to grasp how the food supply industry worked: “It shows that yet again government does not understand how connected the food supply chain is. Only opening part is unlikely to solve the overall issue.”
The former health secretary and chair of the Commons health and social care select committee, Jeremy Hunt, warned the government was at risk of “losing social consent” for self-isolation unless it brought forward wider relaxation of quarantine rules immediately.
But the British Medical Association said the problem was not the “excessive pinging” of the NHS Covid-19 app but that the government’s coronavirus strategy has caused “rocketing case numbers”. Its council chairman, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, said isolation numbers are the “direct result of lack of effective measures by government that is allowing the virus to let rip throughout the nation”.
Case numbers, however, have begun to drop. Saturday’s figure was 31,795 – the seventh in a row in which daily cases have been below the recent high of 54,674. Scientists are, so far, unsure whether it means the peak has passed, or if numbers will rise again as more people remove their masks and forego social distancing following “freedom day”.
Bielby added that despite having repeatedly asked the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) for more clarity since the exemptions were announced last Thursday, his organisation was none the wiser by yesterday. “They don’t really know at the moment, the scheme was done totally on the hoof, on the fly. They haven’t thought it through,” he said.
Bielby also poured scorn on a separate government system designed to allow employers to get self-isolation exemptions for their own key staff. A Defra email address, he said, had been set up to allow employers to lobby for exemption for staff who had been pinged. “If you get pinged at night and are due to go to work the next day, the idea that you’d then tell your boss who’d email a hotline and get a response in time to start the shift in the morning is just absolutely ludicrous,” he said.
Other business groups across several sectors called on ministers to widen exemptions. Emma McClarkin, chief executive of the British Beer & Pub Association, said that without a concerted effort to vaccinate young people and an allowance for workers in the hospitality industry to avoid self-isolation when they test negative, pubs and bars would be forced to close in the peak season.
“NHS Test & Trace is a huge issue for our pubs. Already pubs are closing or greatly reducing their opening hours due to staff shortages caused by app pings – despite staff testing negative on lateral flow tests,” she said. “Forty-three percent of pub staff are aged 18-25, meaning they are at the back of the queue for vaccines and will not have their second jab for months. We urge the government to work with us to find a sensible solution to this that ensures staff and customer safety.”
While ministers are planning to widen the exemption scheme to more key workers, including police, fire service staff and the transport freight sector, with a further 200 workplace testing sites being set up, a senior government source said there were no plans to bring forward the 16 August date.
The outcry from food and other industry leaders about the need for workers who have been pinged by the NHS Covid app to self-isolate grew as data from the Office for National Statistics showed Covid-19 cases had continued to rise, with around one in 75 people in England infected. Estimates of the number testing positive – 741,700 – in the week to 17 July is the highest since the week to 30 January.