Wales will not bring forward plans to change self-isolation rules for people who are fully-vaccinated against coronavirus, despite growing concerns from business leaders that the 10-day quarantine policy is causing “stress and uncertainty” for traders.

Currently, anyone who is identified by contact tracers as being in close contact with someone who tested positive for Covid-19 must self-isolate for 10 days, regardless of their vaccination status.

The easing of restrictions across the UK has brought a new wave of positive cases, leading to more than 500,000 people being ‘pinged’ by the NHS app and asked to self-isolate in the first week of July alone.

Ministers in Wales and England have both said they intend to remove the self-isolation requirements for fully-vaccinated people in August.

Here the change will come into effect on August 7, but among business leaders there are warnings that the wave of ‘ping’ alerts is already causing widespread disruption among the workforce.

The number of close contacts identified in Wales by contact-tracing teams in the week ending July 10 was 14,855 – that’s more than three times the weekly number in mid-June.

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While vaccinations have kept pandemic-related hospitalisations low (around 1.7 per cent of all hospital bed capacity in Wales is currently taken up by Covid-19 patients), infection numbers continue to rise, and requirements to self-isolate – even while double-jabbed – mean many people cannot go to work if they receive an alert from the app.

The issue is affecting the NHS, and in England the UK government has announced that fully-vaccinated frontline health staff can “in exceptional circumstances” avoid self-isolating if they are ‘pinged’ by contact tracers. Scotland will make an announcement on the matter “in the next day or two,” while in Wales Mark Drakeford has vowed “additional safeguards” for NHS workers once the rules change on August 7.

Beyond the NHS, thousands of self-isolation alerts are keeping other workers at home. The Federation of Small Businesses (FSB Wales) said there was “increasing concern” about its costs on the nation’s business community.

“We know that hospitality and tourism businesses in particular are facing a huge amount of challenges, and adding the pressure of staff self-isolating to this means that businesses are dealing with a huge amount of stress and uncertainty,” said Ben Cottam, the head of FSB Wales. “We also know that staff self-isolation has a proportionately greater impact on smaller businesses who are more reliant on a smaller team”

Cottam urged traders to access the Welsh Government’s Economic Resilience Fund if they need to “fill a gap,” and suggested “it may well be” that ministers need to “consider whether there is a safe way” to bring forward the August 7 rule change, adding: “We’re at a really precarious point in the beginning of the economic recovery and we must actively be looking for ways to protect the businesses upon which we will rely to drive jobs, investment and prosperity in Wales.” 

Richard Walker, boss of the Deeside-based supermarket group Iceland, is among those who believe the so called ‘pingdemic’ is causing economic chaos.

He said around four per cent of the total workforce were currently absent because of coronavirus.

“We have got over 1,000 people absent due to Covid, that’s the highest ever since testing began,” he told the BBC.

“It’s about four per cent of our total [UK] workforce of 30,000. In fact, we have just announced employing an additional 2,000 people on top of that to give us a deeper pool of labour, because so many people are now getting pinged.”

Asked about the impact on the business, he said: “A number of stores have had to close and the concern is that as this thing rises exponentially, as we have just been hearing, it could get a lot worse, a lot quicker.”

The boss of Puregym, which counts five branches in Wales among more than 280 across the UK, said as many as 25 per cent of staff had been asked to self-isolate in some areas of what he dubbed “the United Pingdom”.

“It has become a huge challenge for individuals and businesses,” said Humphrey Cobbold. “We’ve been able, through flexibility and sharing of labour, to keep sites open so far but it has been a very close call in certain circumstances.”

Rising numbers of self-isolation alerts are affecting the hospitality sector, too. Trade group UKHospitality warned last week that around “a fifth” of workers in the sector were self-isolating as a result of “being ‘pinged’”.

Pub giant Greene King had to close 33 of its UK pubs in the past week due to staff self-isolation, the firm’s boss Nick Mackenzie told BBC Radio 4 earlier today.

“Across the industry we think it is about one in five of our team members who have been affected by this and therefore it is causing a real issue for us setting up business on a daily basis – we’re having to have shortened hours in some circumstances,” said Mackenzie.

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