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COVID-19: list published of 16 sectors where workers may be exempt from 'close contact' self-isolation

Last night, the government updated its guidance on NHS test and trace in the workplace to include information which explains how employers engaged in 'critical services' can disapply the rules on close contact self-isolation and allow staff to continue to work.

It also separately announced different changes to the self-isolation rules for supermarket depot workers and food manufacturers which come into force next week. It hasn't yet published details about the scheme, but we understand that qualifying staff will be exempt from the quarantine rules, regardless of their vaccination status. Instead, they will take daily lateral flow tests before attending work. The BBC have summarised these changes.

Separate guidance is available in respect of frontline health and care staff, which which we summarise here.

What is the general position regarding 'close contact' self-isolation?

Your staff must tell you if they have COVID-19 or have been been told to self-isolate. You have a legal duty to ensure that anyone who tests positive or has been contacted by NHS test and trace does not return to work until they have completed their self-isolation. 

This legal duty doesn't apply if the employee receives a close contact "ping" from the app. We provide more information about the app in our employers guide to the NHS test and trace app.

What is changing?

For most employers, nothing will change and they'll still have to follow the rules regarding self-isolation. However, the government has identified 16 critical sectors where close contact self-isolation is causing serious disruption and can be disapplied but only in respect of work and travelling to work.

How do I know if my business will be considered critical?

The government has identified the following sectors as critical:

  • Energy
  • Civil nuclear
  • Digital infrastructure
  • Food production and supply
  • Waste
  • Water 
  • Veterinary medicines
  • Essential chemicals
  • Essential transport
  • Medicines
  • Medical devices
  • Clinical consumable supplies
  • Emergency services
  • Border control
  • Essential defence outputs
  • Local government

Whilst this seems to be a relatively long list that could, potentially, include a wide range of public and private organisations, the guidance makes it clear that it's intended to cover exceptional circumstances and won't cover all, or in the majority of cases, even the majority of workers. In other words, you can't use it to avoid all disruption. 

My business isn't included in that list of sectors. Will the government exercise any discretion?

In most cases, no. However, the government has said that in 'exceptional cases' it will consider critical roles that are not currently listed. These will be agreed on a case by case basis.

How do I apply for an exemption for my business?

You have to contact the relevant government department, listed here, and provide information on:

  • the number of people you want to leave self-isolation (and presumably their names)
  • the roles they need to perform, and
  • the impact their absence will have and when it's likely to materialise

If your business isn't included in the sector list, you should contact the government department with responsibility for your sector.

How quickly will I find out if my application has been successful?

The government has said that the relevant departments will take decisions 'rapidly' on a case by case basis and will keep these under review. 

If you are successful, you will receive a letter setting out the named critical workers who don't have to self-isolate and telling you what measures they need to follow (such as taking a PCR test as soon as possible and daily lateral flow tests before attending work). You will not get a general exemption and you'll need to re-apply if another critical worker is told to self-isolate.

Workers will only be exempted if they have received both vaccinations. 

What should we do if an exempted critical worker tests positive?

You should call the Self-Isolation Service Hub on 020 3743 6715 as soon as you know that any of your workers have tested positive.

Employers will need to provide the 8-digit NHS Test and Trace Account ID (sometimes referred to as a CTAS number) of the person who tested positive, alongside the names of co-workers identified as close contacts. This will ensure that all workplace contacts are registered with NHS Test and Trace and can receive the necessary public health advice, including the support available to help people to self-isolate.

How long will this exemption remain in place?

It's only intended to run until 16 August when a wider relaxation for fully vaccinated contacts is set to take effect. However, this date may change. The government said today that it will depend on whether the current wave had peaked by that stage.

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Business and industry figures have been calling for exemptions to be set out, amid warnings that staff shortages caused by the so-called 'pingdemic' are having a knock-on effect in a number of sectors such as the NHS, police and supermarkets.”