Covid Scotland: Critical workers in Scotland set to avoid self-isolation

Critical workers are to be exempt from self-isolation under new Scottish Government plans, it has emerged.

Thursday, 22nd July 2021, 11:33 pm

It is understood the scheme, to be announced on Friday, will cover people working in fields including health and social care.

The plan comes after retailers warned of disruption due to the number of people self-isolating for 10 days after being identified as a close contact of someone with Covid-19.

Some health boards have also said they are under pressure amid staff shortages partly due to the number of staff having to self-isolate.

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Critical workers including health care staff are set to be given an exemption

The plans would require workers to meet certain criteria to avoid having to self-isolate – and there would be safeguards in place, BBC Scotland reported.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “We are aware of the challenges currently facing by a small number of companies, such as Loganair, and services. We are working closely with them to take immediate steps to ensure lifeline services and critical national infrastructure are maintained.

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“Further details will be set out (on Friday) of how isolation exemption rules will apply to specific key staff, in strictly limited circumstances, in order to ensure there is no risk to critical services or to public health.”

Empty shelves had been beginning to appear at supermarkets in Scotland

The move follows the UK Government announcing crucial parts of the food industry, such as supermarket depots, would be allowed to conduct daily Covid testing instead of asking staff to self-isolate.

Scottish Labour and the Scottish Conservatives have both called for improvements to self-isolation requirements and for other measures such as increased vaccination rates to be introduced.

The Scottish Retail Consortium has separately demanded retail workers be made exempt from self-isolation requirements if they test negative for Covid-19. The concerns around thethe ability of businesses to cope with increasing strain on the workforce and supply chains come as more than 600,000 people were told to self-isolate by the UK Government’s Covid-19 contr act tracing app between July 8 and 15. The rocketing in the number of people being ‘pinged’ by the app in England comes as more people test positive with Covid-19.

Cases were briefly above 50,000 a day last week and on Wednesday more than 44,000 were recorded in England.

In Scotland, the impact of rising cases on self-isolation is less severe, with just over 2,500 ‘pinged’ by the Protect Scotland app in the week prior to July 19 and just 60,000 people contacted overall since the app was launched.

Empty shelves

However, due to the complex nature of supply chains across the UK, staff shortages due to the ‘pingdemic’ had been beginning to impact Scotland’s shops and supermarkets.

Empty shelves in supermarkets such as Sainsbury’s and Aldi in Edinburgh were seen on Wednesday, though business groups said the impact from self-isolation was not yet as severe as in England.

This is alongside many warehouse and factory workers being forced to self-isolate, exacerbating issues connected with Brexit such as a shortage of lorry drivers.

In West Lothian, the local council said it would be forced to suspend the collection of recycling bins for two weeks due to a “significant number of staff absences”, including “a number of staff being advised to self-isolate”.

And fuel retailer BP said it had closed several sites temporarily across the UK because of a shortage of fuel.

Stuart Mackinnon, of the Federation of Small Businesses Scotland, said members had begun to note issues with deliveries and delays around when products are available.

The problems are often more severe in rural areas where business owners are more likely to struggle to find cover for those unable to work due to self-isolation, he said.

Mr Mackinnon said: “We have also heard issues with supplies and with logistics as well, such as getting delays to products and drop-offs, for example.

“It is quite difficult to tell where the problem is and whether it relates to the pandemic or issues related to Brexit, or a combination of of all those facts.

“Perhaps though, while the situation is not great in Scotland, it looks worse in England and Wales and that could lead to knock-on issues in Scotland due to issues in England and Wales impacting supply chains.”

Asked whether rules around self-isolation needed to change, Mr Mackinnon said measures must be “proportionate” and warned that if they are not, there could be a “wider impact on society and business” when schools return next month.

He said: “No-one wants to see that virus run out of control again and we accept that at least some health restrictions are likely to be in place for the foreseeable.

“However, we have spoken to officials about the need to ensure that self-isolation measures are proportionate.”

David Lonsdale, director of the Scottish Retail Consortium, said it was time for the Scottish Government to allow those with a negative Covid-19 test result to continue working even if they would otherwise be required to self-isolate.

This would create an exemption for retail workers currently not available to other sectors.

Mr Lonsdale said a “conflux” of pressures had hit supply chains.

He said: “Grocery retailers have done a great job in ensuring customers have access to food and essentials throughout the pandemic.

"They are carefully monitoring the conflux of pressures being seen at the moment – in the supply chain due to the lack of HGV drivers and a rise in self-isolation affecting distribution and logistics, as well as the impact of the incredibly hot weather on demand for a few limited product lines.

“The availability of products on shop shelves remains good despite these pressures. The industry is adept at coping with any disruptions, and most grocery retailers have well developed contingency plans in place to ensure shoppers have good access to the food and other products they need.

“To ease the supply chain issues and ensure retailers can continue to keep shelves stocked, the government should ensure those double vaccinated or show a negative Covid test can continue to work.”

Alternatives to isolation needed

Liz Cameron, chief executive of the Scottish Chambers of Commerce, said the consequences of large numbers of people having to self-isolate was “another setback” for businesses, particularly manufacturers, hospitality and retail.

She said: “The planned easing of self-isolation requirements are still some way off and if not addressed quickly, we will continue to see businesses struggle with large numbers of staff having to self-isolate, impacting on the ability of businesses to trade or even open at all. We would urge that self-isolation restrictions are removed sooner than 9th of August for double-vaccinated individuals.

“The Scottish Government should also consider alternative solutions such as daily Covid testing and direct financial compensation to businesses and employees if the easing of restrictions sooner than August 9 is not possible.”

Interim leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats, Alistair Carmichael, called on the First Minister to introduce a ‘test and release’ scheme for workers due to the closures of petrol stations and supply issues in supermarkets.

He said: “If people test negative and have been double vaccinated, then it would be appropriate to consider a return to work for them.

“We know this has been under consideration for several weeks, so we now need the First Minister to move ahead with a test and release system as recommended by the Royal College of Surgeons.

“The problem is not with the app letting people know they are a close contact, it is with a government that has let the virus run out of control again. That’s why we also need fresh resources funnelled to the test and protect system to help catch people before they pass the virus on.”

Scottish Labour’s economy spokesperson Daniel Johnson said staff shortages were the “last thing businesses need” following lockdown.

He added: “Self-isolation is crucial for keeping the virus under control, but the impact it is having on staffing and supply chains is not sustainable.

“We need to look at how vaccination, testing and other measures can be used to ease these requirements without compromising safety.

“Businesses will be relieved that restrictions are lifting, but the challenges they face will not disappear with the last of the lockdown laws. We need to keep working with businesses to support them through this.”