Boris Johnson at Surrey Police HQ Boris Johnson at Surrey Police HQ, Photo: Tim Hammond / Number 10 Flickr / cropped from original / licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, linked at bottom of article

The government’s mixed messaging on self-isolation puts all workers at risk and unions should be leading the fight for safe workplaces, argues Terina Hine

It may be hard to believe, but we are still in the middle of a pandemic. Yet restrictions have ended, the government is promoting a return to workplaces over the summer, and exempting increasing numbers of workers from self-isolation, while requirements for social distancing and mask wearing in public places have ended.

Official estimates suggest one in 75 people in England currently have the virus so people are quite rightly worried about returning to work, or continuing to work, in less “Covid secure” environments. As people head back to their desks, the commute for all will become increasingly crowded, workplaces and town centres busier and we will all be mixing more whether it is safe to do so or not.

Add to this the latest chaotic, ill thought-through “test-to-release” plan to get around self-isolation, and it is no wonder people are anxious.

Yes, we are breathing a collective sigh of relief that case numbers declined last week – the end of the Euros and of the school term being the most likely explanation – but the impact of lifting restrictions will only become apparent in a couple of weeks.

Last week saw roughly 700,000 people pinged by the NHS Covid app – an increase of 17% from the previous week. Contrary to some reports, these pings are not caused by some malicious technological bug, but by the app doing its job; with an exponential rise in infections there will be an exponential rise in contacts. SAGE scientist Stephen Reicher described the furore over the app as a great deception” which replaced the pandemic with a pingdemic. It is not the rules around the app that need to change but the infection rate that needs to be brought under control.

Yet yesterday ministers announced a second tranche of workers exempt from self-isolation. Prison staff, those working in defence, waste collection, energy, telecoms, chemicals, communications, water, space, fisheries, veterinary medicine, pharmaceuticals and HMRC are now eligible to join those in the food industry, transport, border force, police and fire services.

The Department of Health confirmed there would be an increase in the number of testing sites as part of the test-to-release scheme, but whether these will be able to keep up with the exponential demand is questionable. And although the scheme has started, many of the new sites have yet to open.

Mixed messages and confusion reached new heights as the exempt workers were told their exemptions only apply to the workplace: you may go to work but not pop into a shop on the way home, or heaven forbid go for a pint with a colleague after finishing your shift. Surely the new test-to-release scheme either works, or it doesn’t. This government’s absurdity knows no bounds.

Every worker exempted is a potential threat to their fellow workers: some will not be infectious, but some will be; some co-workers will be immune but many will not be; some will be vulnerable; some will not be fully vaccinated and some will catch the disease even though they are.

The severity of the disease is undoubtedly reduced by vaccination, but only just over half of the population is fully vaccinated. We now have more than 5,000 people being treated in hospital for Covid, the highest number since early March, with many patients aged under 30. And then there is long Covid.

Over 450 key workers told a committee of MPs this week of their struggles with long Covid. One in ten have lost their jobs and a fifth of those who gave evidence have been off work for more than a year. This is not a disease which should be dismissed readily. Rather than focussing on avoiding a ping, the focus should be on reducing infections.

Although trade union reaction to Freedom Day was relatively muted, punctuated only by occasional tweets and website guidance, the change to self-isolation rules saw a number of union leaders urging members to ignore exemptions. The NEU has been particularly vocal, arguing that scores of absences last term were down to government’s inability to control spiralling cases. For September, the NEU is demanding information on what mitigations will be in place for mass testing, that schools need improvements to ventilation and that testing of close contacts needs to be in place for the beginning of term to avoid a repeat of excessive absences. They also call for the £15bn education recovery plan to be implemented.

RMTs Steve Hedley accused the government of a panicked response to the predicable interruption in services as staff were pinged. Mick Lynch, the RMT general secretary, called the change in rules “dangerous”, “ludicrous” and “cavalier”. The union has not ruled out taking industrial action over the issue.

Similarly, Matt Wrack of the Fire Brigades Union, described the policy as “a mess… a knee-jerk reaction”, and the GMB has demanded an urgent rethink. USDAW general secretary, Paddy Lillis, said they would fully back members who chose to stay at home and isolate rather than return to work, and Unison’s general secretary said that “anyone pinged or called by Test and Trace should isolate.” ISU officials, representing Border Force staff, said their members were reluctant to take part in the exemption scheme and would be fully supported by the union.

Opposition should not be restricted to isolation rules alone: today the US CDC (Centre for Disease Control) revised a two-month-old decision and ruled that vaccinated people should wear masks indoors. The same should apply here. We know that ventilation – absolutely crucial for safe workspaces – has been ignored for far too long. Both issues should have been upfront in campaigns before Freedom Day: if workers are to go to work, workplaces must be safe.

There is no government plan to get us out of this mess. Ministers lurch from one crisis to another, making it up as they go. Throughout the pandemic, Tory policy has been corrupt, chaotic and reactive. Labour is not much better. Now it is time for the unions to take a lead. It is their members whose lives and livelihoods are on the line, and who are currently facing even more risk and uncertainty. The NEU showed what good campaigning can achieve back in July 2020 and again in December – the other unions must now follow suit.

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