Businesses have called for clarity after the prime minister announced a "small number" of doubled-jabbed critical workers will not have to self-isolate if they have been “pinged” by the Covid contact tracing app.
Boris Johnson resisted widespread calls to announce a more wide-reaching change to the rules to reduce the number of people in isolation as the NHS, retailers, suppliers and businesses continued to struggle amid the 'pingdemic'.
But Mr Johnson said he would "protect crucial services", suggesting the exception would cover hospital and care home staff, or those working in the supply of food, electricity and medicines, and transport, defence and borders.
From August 16 in England, those who have been double-vaccinated and under-18s will no longer have to isolate if they come into contact with someone who has tested positive for Covid-19 unless they display symptoms, yet businesses say they cannot wait that long.
Earlier, Vaccines Minister Nadhim Zahawi said the change would cover the police, air traffic controllers and train signallers, and others in “circumstances where there would be a serious risk of harm to public welfare if people in critical roles are unable to go to their workplace”.
“So people in those kinds of roles, who have received two vaccinations plus two weeks beyond the second vaccine, will not need to self-isolate for those critical tasks,” he added.But neither went further in setting out who it would apply to and a subsequent government statement said departments will be writing to employers to explain their next steps.
The British Retail Consortium called for clarity on who would be exempt, and said retail workers and suppliers should be included for the “vital role” they have played in the pandemic.
Addressing the public from his own quarantine on the day most Covid restrictions in England were lifted despite cases soaring, Mr Johnson described self-isolation as “one of the few shots we have got left in our locker".
Speaking virtually from his Chequers home, Mr Johnson said: “In the meantime I want to assure you that we will, by making sure that a small number – a very small number – of named fully-vaccinated critical workers are able to leave their isolation solely for the the work that I have described.
“But for the vast majority of us, myself included, I’m afraid we do need to stick with this system for now.”
The government said it is “not a blanket exemption for any sector or role”, only applying to named individuals, and said departments will be writing to employers to explain their next steps.
Vaccines minister Nadhim Zahawi tells ITV News fully vaccinated frontline NHS staff in England will be permitted to carry on working in “exceptional circumstances” if they are “pinged” by the Covid contact tracing app
Hospitality, leisure, food production and retail sectors have complained of having to close premises or slash opening hours because of the number of people being told to stay at home for 10 days after being in contact with a person who has tested positive.
Andrew Lloyd Webber was among those to warn that “freedom day has turned into closure day” after the cancellation of performances of his West End show Cinderella.
Downing Street said there are no plans to reduce the sensitivity of the NHS Covid-19 app responsible for some of the isolation requests by issuing “pings” over close contacts.
Mr Johnson acknowledged it is “frustrating” but said the public had to accept increasing numbers would be told to isolate “as a consequence of living with Covid”, saying those identified as contacts are at least five times more likely to be infected than others.
British Retail Consortium chief executive Helen Dickinson said: “While it is good that government recognises the problems that are being created by an overzealous track and trace system, it remains unclear who will be covered under the new list of critical workers.
“With community cases soaring, the number of healthy retail staff having to self-isolate is rising fast, threatening to disrupt retail operations, and potentially close shops or distribution centres.”
A government spokesperson said: “This is not a blanket exemption for any sector or role.
"Decisions to inform an employer that designated critical workers are considered to have a reasonable excuse to attend work will be made by the relevant department with responsibility for the critical service.
“The employer will receive a letter from that government department informing them and telling them what steps they must follow.”
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.
Some 17 hours after nightclubs were allowed to open for the first time in 16 months in England, Mr Johnson, despite having previously billed his lockdown-easing plan as “irreversible”, now said that “I don’t want to have to close nightclubs again as they have elsewhere” as he urged them to use the NHS Covid Pass for entry, despite it not currently being a legal requirement.
“I should serve notice now that by the end of September, when all over-18s will have had the chance to be double jabbed, we are planning to make full vaccination the condition of entry to nightclubs and other venues where large crowds gather,” he said.
He declined to rule out the possibility of introducing passports for pubs.
Clubs were quick to condemn his proposal to introduce vaccine passports in the autumn, arguing they are difficult to enforce and will reduce the amount of passing trade.
Michael Kill, chief executive of the Night Time Industries Association, said: “So, ‘freedom day’ for nightclubs lasted around 17 hours then.
“What an absolute shambles.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has called the wholesale easing of most restrictions “reckless”, while Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said talk of “freedom day” is “not sensible” given the UK is recording around 50,000 new Covid cases per day.
A further 39,950 lab-confirmed cases were announced in the UK on Monday, along with an additional 19 deaths within 28 days of a positive Covid test.
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