Covid: Train services slashed amid staff shortages as industries suffer impact of self-isolation

Why are businesses not happy with the exemptions to self-isolation rules? ITV News Political Correspondent Libby Wiener has the reaction

Train operators have been forced to cut services due to huge staff shortages, with workers self-isolating due to close contact with a confirmed Covid case.

It's the latest industry to be hit, with food suppliers warning of empty shelves before the government on Thursday announced a relaxation of the rules for workers in the supply chain.

Essential transport is one of the sectors eligible to potentially skip isolation - but only if employers have received a letter from the relevant government department confirming that particular staff member is able to do so.

More than 600,000 people in England and Wales have been told by the NHS Covid app to self-isolate in recent weeks.

The huge numbers and subsequent disruption pushed the government into releasing a list of critical workers who could be exempt from quarantine in some circumstances.

Empty shelves are seen in one store. Credit: ITV News Central

The exemptions list, which applies to some workers within 16 industries, has been criticised as being confusing, too narrow, and for failing to cover a wide range of workers many would consider to be critical.

Mr Eustice defended the list saying it is intentionally "quite limited" because the government wants to avoid a "general approach that anybody can say they're critical".

"It's been deliberately drawn to be quite narrow," he said.

The Environment Secretary earlier accepted trains are likely to be cancelled and delayed in the coming weeks due to the "pingdemic".

Asked how train services could continue with only a few roles within the industry protected, Mr Eustice said: "You have to differentiate between potentially having a lack of train drivers in which case not every train runs on time and some trains are cancelled and that's a consequence of staff absence.

"We recognise that that's a reality over these next few weeks," he added.

'How do you run a train service with just a few key roles protected?' ITV News asks George Eustice

Rail unions say train services will be reduced from next week because of staff shortages, which they warn could lead to overcrowding.

Thameslink and Southern will cut its weekday timetables on five routes from Monday "until further notice".

Avanti West Coast is also cutting trains from Monday on its routes between London Euston and Manchester, Birmingham and North Wales.

Transport for London said London Underground's Circle line and Hammersmith and City line will be closed this weekend due to more than 300 staff self-isolating.

There will also be changes to services on the District and Metropolitan lines.

TfL was supposed to have been involved in the government's pilot-scheme that allowed workers in specific industries to continue coming in to the workplace if told to self-isolate, so long as they tested negative each morning.

The London transport network last week told ITV News it was yet to receive formal notification it was involved in such a scheme.

Passengers wear face masks on a Central Line underground train in London. Credit: Victoria Jones/PA

London Underground managing director Andy Lord said: “We apologise to customers for the impact on Tube services, while we deal with staff shortages across the network due to self-isolation.

“We are committed to running a frequent and reliable service, but with a reduced number of staff available it’s not always possible.

“I’d encourage anyone travelling in the coming days to check before they travel and thank them for bearing with us during this difficult time.”

Passengers wearing face masks on a platform at Canning Town underground station in London Credit: Victoria Jones/PA Wire

London Northwestern Railway will introduce a revised timetable with fewer services from Saturday, while South Western Railways said it had "made pre-emptive changes to some services this weekend".

"Other services may also be subject to short-notice change," it added.

Northern said it is "expecting disruption" this weekend due to "more people being asked to self-isolate", with routes in and out of Sheffield are likely to be the worst hit.

ScotRail said a "very limited number of trains" have been cancelled due to staff shortages, but it has not amended its timetables.

Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, said: "There is a real danger of a headlong rush into these new measures driven by this inept government which could make a bad situation even worse."

Dr Jenny Harries, Head of Test and Trace, explains the various exemptions to the self-isolation rules

He added: ""We are already hearing of planned reductions to rail services next week due to staff shortages."

"Before any implementation of new procedures, employers need to produce proper risk assessments agreed with the union that consider and control the enhanced risks to all staff and ensure that the principle objective of workplace safety is maintained and fully enforced."

Numerous unions are calling on the government to widen the exemption list to more workers within their industries.

At present, the policy will only apply to named workers if their employer has received a letter from the relevant government department - those employees must also have received two coronavirus vaccinations.

If a named employee is told to self-isolate by either NHS contact tracers or by the NHS Covid app, they will be able to avoid quarantine with a negative test result - anyone who tests positive will still be expected to self-isolate.

Full list of sectors who may be exempt from Covid isolation

  • Border control

  • Civil nuclear

  • Clinical consumable supplies

  • Digital infrastructure

  • Emergency services

  • Energy

  • Essential chemicals

  • Essential defence

  • Essential transport

  • Food production and supply

  • Local government

  • Medicines

  • Medical devices

  • Waste

  • Water

  • Veterinary medicines

Separately, workers in the food supply industry will be exempt from self-isolation thanks to a scheme which will see them tested for coronavirus daily.

Mr Eustice said 10,000 staff members, possibly more, would fall under the rule change.

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

Shop staff will not, however, be included in the exemptions, despite supermarkets warning earlier this week that the rising number of retail workers being forced to self-isolate was starting to affect the availability of some products, as retail bosses urged shoppers not to stockpile goods. 

When questioned why this was the case, the environment secretary said it was easier to manage staff shortages on a store level, rather than at distribution centres which cover several stores.

He said the government had created the exemption for food supply workers "very swiftly" in order to keep shops supplied with essentials, amid widespread reports of empty shelves.

The Federation of Wholesale Distributors has questioned why the public sector is not on the list, leaving facilities such as hospitals, care homes and prisons without a guaranteed supply of food.

James Bielby, the group's CEO, criticised the list as having been "drawn up very hastily with not really being thought through".

He said: "It creates a lot of gaps in the supply chain for businesses which are not covered - it's only factories and it's only supermarket distribution centres, its not processors, its not pickers, its not wholesalers it's not people supplying the public sector.

"It's a very limited scheme, I think it's a very much a box ticking exercise by government because they need to be seen to be doing something."

He added: "It's jaw dropping that the public sector hasn't been included."

From August 16 everyone who has had two coronavirus vaccinations will be exempt from self-isolation rules as long as they test negative for the virus.

Coronavirus: What you need to know