COVID-19: Confusion as minister says critical jobs list for isolation exemption is being worked on

A list of critical jobs that will be exempt from full isolation if workers are identified as a close contact of someone who tests positive for coronavirus is being worked on, a minister has told Sky News.

After Boris Johnson made the initial announcement of the policy on Monday, a list had been expected to be released the following day.

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But the government announced that it would not be drawing up a list and employers will instead have to apply to government departments to allow workers to effectively circumvent the COVID-19 rules.

However, Home Office minister Victoria Atkins has told Sky News that a list is still being worked on.

“That is being worked on at the moment I understand,” she told Kay Burley when asked about the confusion.

“We made an announcement on Monday about certain people who work for the NHS and in the care sector.

“A list of such workers is being worked on. We have been listening, we do understand the implications this is having.”

Asked why the government could not just use a list of key workers that was drawn up during the first lockdown last year, Ms Atkins said: “It’s a different exercise from last year in terms of key workers who can return to their place of work.

“It’s a slightly different exercise because the scientists will have to be calculating how many people equals risks in terms of spreading the virus around the country.

“It’s a complicated exercise, but it is very much being worked on.”

The prime minister’s spokesman said on Tuesday that the exemption would be determined on a case by case basis, with employers having to apply to the relevant government department to see if their workers can continue to come into work after they are identified as close contacts of someone who has tested positive for COVID.

The spokesman said it could include certain workers in the food industry, utilities, border staff and the NHS, but there is no blanket exemption for sectors.

He added: “I don’t have a specific number for you at the moment. As these discussions proceed we might have a clearer sense of the numbers, but as the prime minister set out yesterday it will be a very low number of people.”

Asked if it will be on the scale of hundreds or thousands, the spokesman said: “I wouldn’t want to set specific numbers on it at this point.”

On whether supermarket workers specifically would be included in the exemption, he said the government is “not seeking to draw lines specifically around who or who is not exempt” but it is important to “make sure critical services are able to function”.

He added: “The first exemptions I understand have already been given in some critical sectors, that work is going on given the urgency. That’s in both wider sectors and the NHS as well.”

Industry representatives have said the new rules are confusing and businesses need urgent clarification.

There have been growing calls in recent weeks for changes to the rules around isolation, amid warnings that the number of people being told to quarantine is having a crippling effect on businesses.

Dubbed the “pingdemic”, a growing number of people have been alerted by the NHS COVID-19 app in recent weeks, meaning lots of critical workers without symptoms – who cannot work from home – are having to self-isolate.

In the first week of July, more than half a million people were told to self-isolate, a 46% increase on the previous week and a record number.

From 16 August, under-18s and people who are fully vaccinated will no longer be told to isolate if they come into close contact with someone who has tested positive.

Instead, they will be encouraged to take a test. Anyone who tests positive will still be legally required to isolate, regardless of their vaccine status.

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