Posted: 24/01/2022

Food businesses welcome cut to COVID self-isolation period as industry still hit by absences

Fine food businesses have welcomed a plan to end COVID self-isolation rules altogether as staff shortages continue to plague the sector.

Ministers slashed the legal minimum stay-at-home stint to just five full days after a positive test from Monday 17th January, providing people return two consecutive negative tests.

Leading industry figures welcomed the move but urged the government to consider going further, allowing everyone to go to work even if they do have the virus. 

Gabriel David, founder of drinks manufacturer Luscombe, said about one in 15 of his staff were isolating in mid-January and it was common to find himself and other managers abandoning their own work to fill gaps on the production line.

“We need two specialists milling and pressing the ginger for our ginger beer, so if one is off sick you have to pull a day’s production,” he added. “It has had an impact on fulfilment.”

David said the cut in the minimum isolation period was positive but relied on free lateral flow tests remaining available to all businesses until all stay-at-home rules were dropped. 

“In a couple of weeks, if the data is good, let’s remove isolation,” he added. “If Omicron is weaker, let it infect people and build up immunity so we can get back to normality.”

Emma Macdonald, founder of Devon-based condiment producer The Bay Tree, had one member of staff isolating when FFD spoke to her, and another needing time off because family members had COVID-19. She said the situation had sparked anxiety in the team and increased workloads. 

“I have about 18-20 members on my production team and if three or four are knocked out by isolation we can’t run the line,” she said. 

Macdonald said the cut to a minimum isolation period of five days relied on “free, available lateral flow tests” and a longer-term view to “start to ease away from isolation entirely” later this year.

Paul Hargreaves, chief executive at Cotswold Fayre, backed the latest easing of isolation rules, pointing out that the wholesale distributor had nine people isolating on one day in early January.

“We worked a full Saturday, which is very unusual at that time of year, just to catch up from the week,” he said. 

“Suppliers are also saying they have problems; if their ratios are the same as ours then they have people off who would be making products.

“Everything is taking at least a week longer to get to us, and that is a big hit in what we can supply retailers with. Our fulfilment rates are about 10% below what they should be, which is highly frustrating.” 

When do staff have to stay at home?

In England, people have to self-isolate immediately from when they receive a positive test result for at least the following five full days. 

Once five full days elapse, and two consecutive days of negative lateral flow test results are recorded from day five onwards, isolation can end. After 10 full days isolation can end without a negative test result unless non-cough symptoms remain. 

Anyone experiencing one of the trigger symptoms of a new continuous cough, a high temperature or a change in their sense of taste or smell must also start their self-isolation period, which can end when they receive a negative PCR result or fulfil the criteria above.

Anyone told to self-isolate by NHS Test and Trace, most likely because they have not received their full pre-booster allocation of the approved Covid-19 vaccines and have come into close contact with a confirmed case of the virus, also has to isolate.

In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland people must self-isolate for at least seven days as soon as trigger symptoms develop or they test positive. Again, consecutive days of negative lateral flow test results are required to release people at this point. 

There are extra testing and isolation requirements for travelling across borders and other situations. For full legal requirements see government websites.

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