Leading industry figures dismayed by confusion over need to self-isolate amid widespread staff absences
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Last modified on Wed 21 Jul 2021 07.01 EDT
Business leaders, health experts and trade associations representing tens of thousands of businesses have hit out at the government’s handling of the “pingdemic” self-isolation crisis.
Amid mounting concern that staff absences are stifling economic recovery, Princess Yachts and luxury carmaker Bentley added their names to a growing list of firms with a significant number of workers absent.
And a day after leading business lobby group the Institute of Directors criticised “poor communication and mixed messages” from the government, a host of trade associations followed suit.
Leading figures in farming, accounting, boating, paper and printing, and engineering said they were dismayed by the government’s apparent confusion over whether staff who are pinged by NHS test and trace need to isolate.
The government has retreated from comments by the business minister Paul Scully – and a letter to one manufacturer from the investment minister Lord Grimstone – stressing that pings were only advisory. No 10 later insisted self-isolation after a ping was “crucial”.
“The mixed messages coming from government on self-isolation rules are now having a serious impact on businesses,” said Mark Bridgeman, the president of the Country Land & Business Association, which represents 28,000 farmers and rural businesses.
Countryside tourism and hospitality businesses had endured a particularly “torrid year”, he said, warning: “With the current confusion, both consumer and business confidence is being damaged at the worst possible time.”
Glenn Collins of the accounting body ACCA UK said businesses “need message clarity” about what happens when staff are pinged.
“This is especially important as businesses need to be cautious about employee welfare and liability – now’s not the time for confusion.”
Poor communication has “put employers in a very difficult position”, according to David Frise of the Building Engineering Services Association.
“Westminster can’t really have it both ways: either you make it a legal requirement to isolate, or you genuinely leave it up to personal choice,” he said.
Iain McIlwee, the chief executive of the Finishes & Interiors Sector trade body, said that in the early days of the pandemic government had “failed to provide clear and effective leadership.
“We can’t let this happen again. The consequences in terms of contractual liability, employee wellbeing and the associated stress are wholly unacceptable.”
Andrew Large, the director general of the Confederation of Paper Industries, said he was “concerned about the current unclear messaging on the subject of self-isolation”, while Charles Jarrold, the chief executive of the British Printing Industries Federation, labelled the government’s communications “highly confusing”.
Environmental health experts also questioned the government’s approach. “We are becoming increasingly concerned by … mixed messaging,” said Kate Thompson, the director of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health.
“Test and trace is an important tool in keeping Covid under control as we lift restrictions, and the government should be playing a key role in making this clear to the public.
“The contradictory statements from different ministers and government departments suggests a lack of direction at the top and will sow confusion amongst businesses and the public.”
Michelle Ovens, the founder of Small Business Britain, said staff shortages caused by the pingdemic were “simply unacceptable for many business owners.
“Clear guidance and support is urgently needed from government: if businesses need to isolate their staff, they need both a clear steer on this and further support packages to keep them afloat.”
Dozens of firms in sectors from pubs to carmaking have warned that business is being disrupted by staff absences, with the roster of affected companies including Marks & Spencer, Greene King, Asos, Nissan, Rolls-Royce Motor Cars and Wetherspoon’s.
Manufacturers whose staff cannot work from home have been particularly hard hit.
The luxury motor yacht maker Princess Yachts, which employs 3,200 people, said on Tuesday that more than 10% of its workforce was isolating, with suppliers also badly affected.
“The contrast between relaxing restrictions while requiring continued, highly sensitive track and trace pings is inexplicable to us,” said its executive chair, Antony Sheriff.
Bentley said on Tuesday that 5% of its manufacturing workforce was isolating, although it is still running at full production and providing self-testing kits to staff.
Widespread absences across sectors such as retail, manufacturing and hospitality have stoked concern that the lifting of restrictions may hamper the UK’s economic recovery.
Rory Macqueen, the principal economist of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research thinktank, said the lifting of restrictions was “unlikely to stoke an economic boom” given the amount of staff who are absent.
“If there is a requirement for people who are ’pinged’ to isolate then that needs to be made clear in terms of the number of days, the need for a sequence of Covid tests and also whether those who have been vaccinated can follow a different protocol.
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