Latest reports from Sky News suggest the exemption will apply to about 10,000 workers in the food supply chain industry, including those in up to 500 supermarket distribution centres and 'some key food manufacturers'.
The Government is rolling out a trial testing system to 15 priority sites today (23 July) and a further 150 supermarket depots next week and several hundred food manufacturers after that, Sky News reported. If workers 'pinged' by the NHS app test negative for COVID-19, they will not need to self-isolate. In addition, the Government has said that from 16 August, everyone who has had their two COVID-19 vaccinations will not need to self-isolate when 'pinged'.
Richard Harrow, chief executive of the British Frozen Food Federation (BFFF) said: “The government announcement last night that parts of the supply chain will be allowed to test and release workers that are pinged by Track and Trace only goes part of the way.
"It shows that yet again government does not understand how connected the food supply chain is. Only opening part is unlikely to solve the overall issue. Plus who is in and who is out, who decides and how do they decide? Confusion continues to pervade and I have been advised no list until Monday. This is worse than useless.”
Missing vital details
Nick Allen, chief executive of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA) said George Eustice's announcement last night (22 July) would bring some relief to the industry. However, he said it was still missing vital details and clear guidance on exactly how the measure would apply to individual companies and workers.
"So far it’s been announced that key workers in ‘about 500 sites’ in the food supply chain will be allowed to ‘test to return to work’ instead of having to self-isolate after they’ve been ‘pinged’ by the App or contacted by Test & Trace," said Allen. "According to Mr Eustice, this includes about 200 food production sites. However, at this stage we don’t know who is on that list.
"It’s also not yet clear which workers at other sites that are not on that list will be exempt from self-isolation. In this separate scheme, we understand that companies will need to apply for exemption for individual workers on a job-by-job and person-by-person basis but we don’t know what jobs would be eligible.
'Need more information'
"Right now, we urgently need Government to publish more information giving clear, unambiguous guidance on which sites are exempt, which job roles qualify for exemption and exactly how these new rules will be applied."
There has also been an issue securing supplies of lateral flow tests, leaving many industries, including the food sector, facing the question of how readily available they will be.
"We also hope that the various Government departments that will be handling exemption applications for individual workers between now and 16 August have sufficient administrative capacity to process them quickly enough," said Allen.
"Our fear is that, if infections keep rising at the current rate, there will be so many non-exempt workers taken out of the system that, regardless of those protected ‘key sites’, the rest of the supply chain around them will start failing."
In any case, Ranjit Singh Boparan, president and founder of 2 Sisters Food Group, has warned addressing the so-called 'pingdemic' that was removing significant numbers of production lines was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of solving the food industry's skills crisis.