Ministers have been accused of sowing further confusion for councils and companies struggling to keep services running, as it was revealed no list will be published of “critical workers” who can leave isolation if double-vaccinated.
With cases rocketing and hundreds of thousands of people forced into isolation, the government had faced pressure from Tory MPs to bring forward the date when those who have been fully vaccinated will not need to quarantine – currently scheduled for 16 August in England.
There are fears the record-high number of infections is having a significant knock-on effect on the amount of people “pinged” by the Covid app or contacted by NHS test and trace, putting pressure on patient treatment in hospitals and on services such as bin collections due to a shortage of staff.
While the government on Monday announced that some people would be exempt a month before the rules change for everyone else, it faced repeated calls to clarify which “critical workers” who have had both jabs will qualify.
Only railway signallers and air traffic controllers have been cited as examples of staff who can apply to leave isolation to go to work “where there would otherwise be a major detrimental impact on essential services”.
Pressed for the full list, Downing Street revealed on Tuesday one would not be published, and said it will be up to businesses to apply for an exemption for their workers directly to the relevant Whitehall department, with all submissions coordinated by the Cabinet Office.
NHS staff, and those working in the food and medicines supply chain, as well as border staff, will be included, Boris Johnson’s spokesperson said, adding: “We are not going to be producing a list covering individual sectors.”
He did not give an estimated timeframe when businesses should expect to hear if their application had been accepted or rejected and did not rule out supermarket workers being eligible, saying the government was not going to “draw lines specifically” around who and who is not exempt.
James Lowman, chief executive of the Association of Convenience Stores, said the policy was “unhelpful and unworkable for the thousands of small businesses dealing with staff shortages as a result of being pinged by the Covid app”.
“The government needs to take action now by bringing forward the 16 August change to isolation rules, otherwise stories will be at risk of having to close over the next few weeks,” he added.
James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, said it should be up to councils rather than Whitehall to identify who is classed as a “critical worker” because local authorities should be able to change the definition to “reflect the changing staffing demands across services as they look to redeploy staff”.
One senior Tory MP said ministers were in a “mess” on the issue and the country would soon find itself at “breaking point” with many more firms unable to operate. Seema Malhotra, Labour’s shadow business minister, said the lack of clear advice illustrated “the chaotic decision making in government”.
She said it would “undermine business confidence, creating uncertainty for employers and the public about what they should be doing to tackle virus transmission” – adding it was bad for public health and the economy.
Layla Moran, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Covid, said businesses had been “left in disarray” due to “the lack of transparency” from the government about which critical workers will qualify for exemption.
“It feels like ministers have simply thrown in the towel in the fight against Covid, and are leaving businesses and the public to pick up the pieces,” she said.