Business and health chiefs warned on Tuesday that England faces weeks of workplace chaos, with around 2m people a week at risk of contracting Covid-19 or being asked to self-isolate.
Health secretary Sajid Javid admitted there could be a record 100,000 new Covid cases a day if most remaining restrictions are lifted on July 19 as planned. The projected number of daily cases would far exceed the 61,240 new daily cases when the virus peaked on January 1.
But recent data show that a ratio of two people are asked to isolate for 10 days per original case, suggesting that if 700,000 a week were infected a further 1.4m could be asked to self-isolate.
Javid on Tuesday said self-isolation rules would be lifted on August 16 to be replaced by a lighter testing regime for anyone who had received two jabs. But that would still leave employers facing weeks of staffing problems.
Kate Nicholls, chief of the industry body UK Hospitality, said the isolation policy was causing “carnage” and delaying a new system until mid-August would hit the sector and discriminate against a huge proportion of its workforce.
“Around 60 per cent of our staff are aged between 15-34 and the vast majority will not have had the opportunity to receive both jabs by August 16,” she said.
One retail executive said the industry was very concerned about the delay to the end of self-isolation rules, pointing to growing pressures on distribution centres where many staff have been forced to isolate.
Chris Hopson, head of NHS Providers, which represents leaders across the health service, said NHS trusts were already reporting a “significant problem” with staff shortages. “If these rates increase very significantly up until August 16 we could have a serious issue,” he said.
During the peak of the second wave in January there were 637,734 staff working days in the NHS lost owing to Covid-19, mainly from workers forced to self-isolate.
Allies said Javid’s decision to delay new rules on self-isolation until August 16 was taken to allow more people to receive two vaccinations, including young parents.
The health secretary’s team said he was keen to strengthen the country’s defences against the virus “for a little longer” amid opposition Labour claims that the government is being “reckless” by planning to lift most restrictions, including compulsory mask wearing, on July 19.
With cases doubling every nine days, Javid said the country was entering “uncharted territory” but that the “wall of protection” offered by coronavirus vaccines would allow new rules on self-isolation to apply from the middle of next month, arguing that death rates would remain low.
He said any adult who had received both jabs would no longer have to self-isolate if they had been in close contact with a person who then tested positive for Covid-19.
Contacts would be advised to take a PCR test and self-isolate if they tested positive. Those receiving a second dose around August 16 would need to wait two weeks for the vaccine to be fully effective.
Meanwhile, Javid also said that all under-18s — an age group that has not routinely been vaccinated — would no longer have to isolate from August 16 if they were in contact with a person who had tested positive.
The controversial “bubble” policy, which led to 640,000 pupils being absent from England’s schools last week, is set to end on July 19 with responsibility for contact-tracing passing from headteachers to NHS Test and Trace.
From August 16, children will need to isolate only if they have tested positive for Covid-19.