Covid app causing staff shortages and cutting production of goods, business groups warn

ITV News Correspondent Ben Chapman spoke to employers struggling to staff their businesses

Up to a fifth of workers in companies are having to self-isolate after receiving a notification from the NHS Covid app, threatening cuts in production of goods. Business groups and unions have said that the problem had escalated this week, leading to pleas for the government to step in. There are calls to bring forward the August 16 date where the fully vaccinated will not have to self-isolate if they come into contact with someone with Covid-19. The number of people notified by the app in England and Wales recently passed 500,000 in a single week.

'I understand everyone's frustrations': Solicitor General Lucy Frazer says it is still important to self-isolate when told to do so

Earlier on Friday, Solicitor General Lucy Frazer told ITV News: "I understand everyone’s frustrations about this, it is really important that if you are pinged you do self-isolate.

"In mid-August the rules will, in fact, change. So, if you are pinged after August 16 and you are double-vaccinated, you won’t be required to self-isolate.

"Instead, you will be asked to take a test ."

She added the government is holding pilots with some businesses to see "whether it would be appropriate to ask people to take a test rather than self-isolate."

ITV News Political Correspondent Libby Weiner reports on the impact staff shortages are having on hospitals and businesses

Pressure on hospitals

Staff shortages have affected hospitals too, with Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham reportedly cancelling cancer operations over today and yesterday.

Health bosses in Sunderland have asked staff to postpone holidays as the trust came “under extreme pressure.”

Staff at South Tyneside and Sunderland NHS Foundation Trust – dealing with one of the highest infection rates in the country – are seeing hospital cases doubling week-on-week.

In an internal note to staff earlier this week, bosses said there were 80 Covid-19 patients receiving hospital treatment compared with just two exactly a month before. The message started: “The Trust is currently under extreme pressure due to a surge in Covid-19 cases. “Many people are seriously ill and receiving intensive care support.”

How the Covid-19 NHS app works

How and when should I pause contact tracing?

Users of the app can pause contact tracing by selecting 'Manage contact tracing' on the home screen, then toggle on or off.

You should pause contact tracing when you:

  • are working behind a fixed screen and are fully protected from other people

  • store your phone in a locker or communal area, for example while working or taking part in a leisure activity like swimming

  • are a worker in health and social care and are wearing medical grade PPE such as a surgical mask

  • are a healthcare worker working in a healthcare building such as a hospital or GP surgery 

You can set a reminder to turn contact tracing back on after 4 hours, 8 hours or 12 hours. 

When contact tracing is paused, you will still be able to check into venues with an official NHS QR code poster.

Source: NHS Test and Trace

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When will I be 'pinged' by the NHS app?

If an app user tests positive for coronavirus, they can choose to share their result anonymously.

The NHS will then send alerts to other app users who have spent time near them, or been in ‘close contact', over the last few days. These alerts will never identify an individual.

‘Close contact’ is based on an algorithm, but generally means you've been within 2 metres of someone with coronavirus for 15 minutes or more. 

If the app user who tested positive booked their test through the app, the test result will come through to their app automatically. However they still need to click ‘share random IDs’ before their close contacts can be notified. If they booked their test through another route, they will also need to link their test result into the app using a code.

This means that you will not always receive a close contact alert on the same day that the person received their positive test result.

Your self-isolation period is calculated from the date at which you were in close contact with the person who tested positive. 

Source: NHS Test and Trace

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What should I do if I am 'pinged' by the app?

If you receive an alert telling you that you've been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus, and you need to self-isolate, then you will have to say at home for a full 10 days following that contact.

It can take up to 10 days for symptoms to appear. People in your household will not need to isolate unless you develop symptoms.

If you develop coronavirus symptoms during this 10 day period, you are advised to use the symptom checker in the NHS COVID-19 app to find out if it could be coronavirus.

If the app confirms that you may have coronavirus, it will take you to a website where you can book a coronavirus test.

If you have coronavirus symptoms, you and anyone in your household or support bubble will have to stay at home until you’ve been tested, and got your result and advice on what to do next.

If you do not develop symptoms after 10 days, you can stop self-isolating. You will not need a coronavirus test.

If you are under 18 years old, and test positive for coronavirus, you should notify a trusted adult before taking any action.

If you have questions about how the advice applies to you, or are struggling with self-isolation, you are advised to call 111.

Source: NHS Test and Trace

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What is the difference between contact tracing and checking into venues?

Contact tracing and the venue check-in function are two methods used by the NHS COVID-19 app,

When you have contact tracing switched on, your app will use Bluetooth to know when it has come into close contact with other nearby app users.

‘Close contact’ is generally 2 metres for 15 minutes or more.

If any of those nearby app users later test positive for coronavirus, you will receive an alert with advice on what to do.

The alerts are based on a ‘risk-scoring algorithm’ developed by scientific experts.

When you check into venues using the app and official NHS QR code posters, this data is held on your phone.

If it’s identified that people who were there on the same day have since tested positive for coronavirus, you may get an alert with advice on what to do.

The venue check-in feature works independently of the contact tracing feature.

If you get a venue alert it will not tell you to self-isolate.

Source: NHS Test and Trace

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What alerts will the NHS COVID-19 app send me?

The NHS COVID-19 app will send alerts in these situations:

  • You’ve been in close contact with someone who has tested positive for coronavirus (COVID-19). 

  • You have visited a venue where you may have come into contact with others who have since tested positive for COVID-19. 

  • Information for your local area has changed.

  • Information for your local area about variants of concern. 

  • You booked your test through the app, and your test results have arrived.

  • You have paused contact tracing and set a reminder to turn it back on.

  • Your guidance has changed. For example, your self-isolation period has come to an end. 

  • You are advised or required to update your app to the latest version. 

  • You did not select 'Notify others' or 'Do not notify others' and over 24 hours have passed. 

  • If you need to self-isolate, you'll be able to see this in the app as a self-isolation countdown timer.

  • Other alerts may say: “Possible COVID-19 Exposure''.

Source: NHS Test and Trace

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Manufacturing struggles

Stephen Phipson, chief executive of manufacturing organisation Make UK, saying the problem has "escalated significantly" over the past week.

"More and more companies being affected by isolation, with not just an impact on production but a hit to actual shipments of goods going overseas," he said.

“This is an increasingly serious issue affecting companies of all sizes and sectors.

"There is now an urgent priority for government to bring forward the August date given the likely impact of restrictions being lifted next week.”

Small and large companies are being hit by staff shortages of up to 20%, it is understood.

Car giant Nissan has been affected at its plant in Sunderland and it is believed that other carmakers, including Rolls-Royce could also have to make changes to production schedules to deal with the problem.

Food shortcomings

A spokesman for the British Meat Processors Association said: “We’re hearing reports from some members that between five and 10% of their workforce have been ‘pinged’ by the app and asked to self-isolate.

“This is on top of the desperate shortage of workers that the industry is already suffering. As a result, companies are having to simplify down their range of products to compensate for key skills being removed from their production lines.

“If the UK workforce situation deteriorates further, companies will be forced to start shutting down production lines altogether.

“It’s for this reason that we’ve been calling on the government for months to add butchers to the Shortage Occupation List, which would allow the industry to temporarily fill these growing vacancies with overseas workers until the current crisis has passed.”

Transport delays and cancellations

Credit: PA

West Midlands Railway said it had seen the number of staff having to self-isolate quadruple in recent weeks.

As a result, trains have been cancelled at short notice and fewer carriages are available on some services.

The company is asking passengers to keep wearing face coverings, unless exempt, from Monday despite the easing of Covid restrictions, and is also warning rail users to expect more short notice cancellations as increasing numbers of staff are pinged.

Jonny Wiseman, West Midlands Railway’s customer experience director, said: “We are keeping up the extra high standards of cleaning on our trains and stations that we implemented at the start of the pandemic.

“Even though Covid restrictions are easing from Monday, the message is, in crowded spaces, wear a face covering out of respect for others.”

Are neighbours being pinged through walls?

The number of people receiving a notification is increasing. Credit: PA

Downing Street has said it is “highly unlikely” that the NHS Covid app is leading to large numbers of people being “pinged” through the walls of their home.

A report in the Telegraph said neighbours have been told to self-isolate because the contact tracing app has registered them as a close contact with a positive coronavirus case next door, despite not coming into face-to-face contact.

But No 10 said the app’s signal is unlikely to be strong enough to make such connections.

Patrick Langmaid, the manager of a Cornwall holiday park, told ITV's Good Morning Britain his guests are having to clean toilets themselves due to staff shortages

The app sent 530,126 alerts in England and Wales during the first week of July, and industries are complaining of workforce shortages due to the number of people being told to quarantine.

While it is only guidance, users who receive an alert to self-isolate by the NHS app are recommended to follow the advice to prevent spreading the virus.

Asked about the possibility of neighbours being pinged through shared walls, a spokesman for the Prime Minister said: “We’re confident that that is not contributing to large numbers of individuals being asked to self-isolate.

“The app uses low-energy Bluetooth and its signal strength is significantly reduced through things like brick walls, so therefore it is highly unlikely that through brick walls would lead to an alert.”

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