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Businesses call for mass testing to avoid mass self-isolation

27 July 2021

The UK's leading business groups are calling on the government to rethink its self-isolation strategy and focus on daily testing to keep more people at work.

The government has extended the list of workers who will be able to take daily tests rather than having to self-isolate for ten days if they come into contact with someone with COVID-19. The extension is intended to reduce the number staff shortages in critical industries including supermarkets, waste management and emergency services.

However, businesses groups have warned that the new rules don't go far enough. John Foster, CBI director of policy, said: "This exemption list will help some of our critical sectors to keep moving but it will rapidly become significantly challenged. First, the idea of potentially thousands of businesses emailing Whitehall officials to request approval for individuals to go to work is undeliverable let alone undesirable. Second, the list is slim, missing out many businesses in the supply chains that will be crucial to the running of these key industries so will need to be significantly expanded within days."

Foster has called for mass testing, not mass self-isolation, to tackle staff shortages. He said: "That's why the government should be applauded for moving to a test and release scheme for the food industry to help relieve staff shortages. This is exactly the kind of agile response that firms need to build confidence in the reopening. If the Daily Contact Testing scheme is deemed as a good, safe solution by the government, the next step must be to scale this up at pace."

Freelancer body IPSE has said that the government's "narrow" self-isolation exemptions list also leaves many self-employed workers who cannot work from home standing to lose significant income.

Derek Cribb, IPSE ceo, said: "Although it is understandable that government has focused on critical industries, it has failed to account for people's working conditions and the fact that for many self-employed people, being told to isolate can be a financial catastrophe. From plumbers to construction workers, many of the UK's self-employed cannot work from home: isolation can therefore mean up to ten days of lost earnings and delays to projects."

A recent poll of members by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) has found that nearly half have had staff either off sick with COVID or self-isolating in the past two weeks. "Government departments are likely to face large volumes of requests for exemptions in the coming days," said Hannah Essex, BCC co-executive director. "They must live up to their commitment to responding quickly to requests and provide clear and precise guidance as to what individuals and businesses should do, for example with regards to testing."

She added: "Pilot schemes for 'test to release' options have been running for some time now and we would urge the government to immediately bring forward the results of those test schemes and set out how this could be used to enable more double-vaccinated people to avoid self-isolation beyond this narrow group of critical workers."

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has also joined the calls for action. CIPD poll data shows that 57% of HR professionals said their organisation faced staff shortages in the last month because of employees having to self-isolate.

"This problem is only going to grow as the economy continues to open up after restrictions end," said Ben Willmott, CIPD head of public policy. "In light of fast-growing staff shortages, government should urgently review the criteria under NHS Test and Trace which requires anyone who has come into close contact with a positive COVID-19 case to self-isolate for ten days."

Written by Rachel Miller.

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