Covid self-isolation rules and the NHS test and trace app are back in the spotlight, after Downing Street and business minister Paul Scully quickly contradicted each other over COVID-19 isolation rules in England.
On Tuesday 20 July — the day after all legal COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in England, and restaurants, pubs, bars, and cafes reopened fully for the first time in 16 months, Scully told Times Radio:
It’s important to understand the rules. You have to legally isolate if you are on the... contacted by Test and Trace, or if you’re trying to claim isolation payments
The app is there to give... to allow you to make informed decisions. And I think by backing out of mandating a lot of things, we’re encouraging people to really get the data in their own hands to be able to make decisions on what’s best for them, whether they’re employer or an employee.
His comments suggested that workers should not necessarily isolate if instructed to do so by the NHS COVID-19 app — that workers or employers were able to “make informed decisions.” Hours later, a Downing Street spokesperson came out with a different message:
Given the risk of having and spreading the virus when people have been in contact with someone with Covid, it is crucial people isolate when they are told to do so, either by NHS Test and Trace or by the NHS Covid app.
Businesses should be supporting employees to isolate, they should not be encouraging them to break isolation.
Both sets of comments come during what has been dubbed a “pingdemic,” with the high prevalence of the Delta variant and the necessarily blunt instrument of an app (that works by simply calculating the time spent by two phones within a certain distance from each other) combining to leave workers self-isolating in the hundreds of thousands. Many London restaurants have had to cut service or close entirely, even on occasions when affected staff members have not been in contact with their colleagues.
But as has been common throughout the pandemic — whether in ministers having contradictory mask policies in Pret a Manger or a lack of cohesion on what a Scotch egg ontologically is — these faintly ridiculous contradictions risk overshadowing root issues. It is true that only direct contact from an NHS Test and Trace employee represents a legal requirement to self-isolate; an app alert is advisory and not legally binding.
But while Downing Street appeals to the moral and public health imperatives to isolate, it ignores the fact that an employee who is directed to, or “makes an informed decision” to isolate for 10 days is only entitled to statutory sick pay (SSP) of £96.35 per week, from which taxes are deducted and for which they only become eligible after four days of isolation.
A £500 self-isolation payment is only available to people on a “low income,” the definition of which is determined by individual local councils. It is not hard to see why — when an app alert is advisory — workers who fear being able to afford pay rent or eat would instead choose to go into work, and possibly risk spreading COVID-19 further, not because they are making an “informed decision” per Scully, but because the financial support available to them is simply insufficient. Furthermore, the option for businesses to put self-isolating employees on furlough was left opaque for the first 15 months of the pandemic, while many workers who are part of the restaurant economy — delivery riders in particular — are not eligible for SSP at all.
The immediacy of this self-isolation row echoes the dangers of too much policy focus on the immediacy of the COVID-19 pandemic. While such an unprecedented event requires urgent, sometimes imperfect intervention, they should not hide the longer term structural problems that, in this case, restaurant, pub, cafe, and bar workers face whether or not there’s a pandemic.