Staffing shortages have turned manufacturing, bin collections, retail, transport and healthcare upside down as the NHS Test and Trace app “pinged” more than half a million people into isolation last week.
The contact tracing app’s sensitivity is now under review after reports that the app is “pinging wrong” and Brits are being told to self-isolate when their neighbours test positive.
The bluetooth signal used by the app, which underpins the contact tracing technology, is believed to be so strong it can pick up other phones through walls – and send self-isolation alerts.
According to the latest government test and trace data, there was a 43 per cent increase in the number of people testing positive for Covid in the week to 7 July compared to the previous week.
There is a one week lag in the test and trace data, but even then, the number of people alerted for having come into close contact with someone who tested positive stood at its highest since mid-January.
The government has indicated that by mid-August, those “pinged” by the app will not have to self-isolate if they have had both doses of a vaccine and report negative lateral flow test results.
But for the time being, business leaders across a range of industries have spoken out about staffing chaos as rotas are forced to change with no notice – threatening their prospects of a return to normal business when restrictions lift on Monday.
Meat and car production lines in jeopardy
Brits could be mask free but meat-less on Freedom Day, as meat processing companies suffer severe staff shortages.
The industry was already experiencing a decline in staff, partly due to new Brexit rules earlier in the year making it more difficult for EU citizens to work in the UK. But now, up to 1 in 10 of their workforce have been told to isolate by the NHS app, according to the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA).
“As a result, companies are having to simplify down their range of products to compensate for key skills being removed from their production lines,” BMPA chief executive Nick Allen told the BBC.
“If the UK workforce situation deteriorates further, companies will be forced to start shutting down production lines all together.”
Rolls Royce chief executive Torsten Muller-Otvos wouldn’t rule out shutting down the British car manufacturer’s production line either, after a large proportion of its staff were also absent while self-isolating.
Otvos told The Telegraph his company was on the “edge of a critical situation” as “cases have gone through the roof and it is causing havoc.”
One fifth of retail and hospitality workers self-isolating
And the situation is even worse in industries where staff come into close contact with customers.
Earlier in the week, chief executive of UK Hospitality Kate Nicholls told MPs that one in five workers in the hospitality and retail sectors were self-isolating due to being pinged – and warned this could increase.
“We have one in five hospitality staff in isolation, and we have particular concerns as around 60% of our staff are under 30,” Nicholls told the Commons business select committee.
“The changes to allow double-vaccinated people to avoid isolation won’t kick in in a material way until September because the workforce won’t have been able to have their second jabs until then.
“We believe we need to have a test-to-release policy to help them work.
The test and trace situation has exacerbated existing staffing issues for the industry, which was already facing a shortage of 200,000 workers due to people switching careers when venues were shut down, Nicholls said.
“For many of our small businesses, if you lose one or two of your workers you don’t have enough people to open at all, and obviously that has huge ramifications,” she added.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the British Retail Consortium, said British shops were experiencing similar levels of staff absences, with vacancy rates of around 20 per cent.
“And only some of that is directly people with COVID – a lot is the indirect consequence of having to isolate, irrespective of tests or whether one has had two vaccines,” she told MPs.
“I think it is an immediate issue that comes with the lifting of restrictions.”
Richard Walker, the managing director of supermarket Iceland, yesterday said that despite fewer Covid deaths and hospitalisations, he was facing the greatest pandemic challenges to running the grocer yet, in a Daily Mail column.
Staff shortages, not because they contracted the virus themselves but, due to workers falling victim to “the so-called pingdemic”, are to blame, Walker said.
“Today I am in the unprecedented position of being forced to close our stores because I do not have enough people to staff them,” Walker said.
Snaking queues at Heathrow
Arrivals complained of long queues at London’s Heathrow Airport on Monday after a large number of security staff were told to self-isolate by the NHS Covid-19 test and trace app.
Snaking queues for security and check-in appeared at Heathrow Terminal 5, as the staffing shortage coincided with surging passenger numbers after travel restrictions were lifted.
The airport later confirmed passenger congestion in Terminal 5 departures was due to “colleagues being instructed to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace.”
A threat to GDP recovery
Julian Jessop, Economics Fellow at think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs, said that although the 500,000 people that have been “pinged” represents less than 2 per cent of the total UK labour force in itself, the effects that staff absence could have long term economic ramifications.
“The loss of both staff and customers will be very disruptive for some businesses and might delay the return of overall GDP to pre-pandemic levels by a few months,” Jessop said.
“This could be a price worth paying for a more sustainable recovery in the longer term, if it helps to prevent the latest wave of Covid from getting out of control. But there is also the risk that overly sensitive app settings undermine confidence and hold back the recovery unnecessarily.”
Relief in sight?
The government has indicated that by mid-August, those ‘pinged’ by the app will not have to self-isolate if they have had both doses of a vaccine and report negative lateral flow test results.
But around 4.6 million people per week could be forced to self-isolate until the rules are dropped, according to estimates by the Adam Smith Institute.
Health Secretary Sajid Javid is reportedly considering whether the rule change could be brought forward for healthcare workers amid concerns over staff shortages – but elsewhere ministers have made no indiciations that business leaders could be relieved by an early rule alteration.