What are the Covid self-isolation rule changes and do they apply to you?

The rule changes only apply to named workers in selected sectors. Credit: PA

The long-awaited list of workers who could skip self-isolation if 'pinged' by the NHS Test and Trace app has been released by ministers amid growing pressure.

Here's everything you need to know

  • What is the rule change?

From Thursday, guidance published for England means that certain employees providing critical services will no longer be legally required to self-isolate if they have been identified as a contact of someone with Covid by the NHS Test and Trace app.

While the government said that self-isolation remains an essential tool to reduce the spread of the virus, it outlined that a number of named workers will be able to avoid it “in the small number of situations where the self-isolation of close contacts would result in serious disruption to critical services”.

The rules stipulate, however, that this process doesn’t apply to workers who have tested positive for Covid-19, and also for contacts who develop symptoms regardless of their role or vaccination status. Self-isolation rules remain as normal in these circumstances.

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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  • Who is it changing for?

The change applies for named workers in specifically approved workplaces - from mainly 16 sectors including essential transport, food supply, emergency services and energy.

See the full list here.

Workers must also be fully vaccinated, defined as someone who is 14 days post-final dose.

It is not a ‘blanket exemption’ for all workers in a sector, the government explained - for instance, while railway signal operators on whom the network depends may be given an exemption, individual train drivers are unlikely to be.

A Covid-19 drive-through test centre for NHS workers in Wembley, north-west London. Credit: Jonathan Brady/PA

The Department of Health and Social Care said certain tests are applied when identifying if an individual could attend work.

These are whether the employee works in critical elements of national infrastructure and whether their absence would be likely to lead to the loss or compromise of this infrastructure resulting in one or both of the following:

- Major detrimental impact on the availability, integrity or delivery of essential services – including those services whose integrity, if compromised, could result in significant loss of life or casualties

- Significant impact on national security, national defence, or the functioning of the state.

A separate "test to return" scheme has been brought in for upwards of 10,000 workers in the food chain industry - meaning they won't have to self-isolate if 'pinged' either.

  • How do I know if it apples to me?

The change in rules only applies to you if your employer has received a letter from a government department on which your name is listed.

If they have, you will be able to leave self-isolation to carry out critical work - other than that, you should self-isolate as normal.

A coronavirus testing site Credit: PA

The government has said it is important that employees continue to self-isolate if they’re pinged by the NHS Test and Trace app, even if they have received both vaccine doses, unless employers have a letter from a government department on which the workers are specifically named.

But it also added that employers should contact the relevant government department if they haven’t received a letter and believe the self-isolation of certain key employees as contacts would result in serious disruption to critical services.

Separate arrangements are in place for frontline health and care staff.

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  • Why have the rules been changed

The list of workers who could skip self-isolation if they are ‘pinged’ by the NHS Covid-19 app was long-awaited by many, as pressure increased on the government from businesses suffering from the ‘pingdemic’.

The government had initially refused to introduce any changes to self-isolation rules, but pressure mounted from various industries who were struggling to stay open due to their staff being told to quarantine.

A record number of people were told to self-isolate by the government app - more than 600,000 in the week to July 14, not covering the period since restrictions were lifted - causing disruption in many sectors including retail.

  • How long will this stay in place

According to the Department of Health and Social Care, these rule changes are only intended to run until August 16 - when fully vaccinated close contacts will be exempt from self-isolation.

The government said it will continue to engage closely on self-isolation rules and regulations with employers over the summer.