'Disruptive' pingdemic 'could get worse', Suffolk firms warn
- Credit: PA
The chaos caused by "disruptive" coronavirus self-isolation rules "could get worse", Suffolk business leaders have warned - as they call for clearer guidance.
More than 500,000 people across the UK were told to self-isolate in the first week of July after coming into contact with Covid sufferers.
Many have had notifications on their phone through the NHS Covid-19 app, in what is being dubbed the "pingdemic".
From August 16, people who have had two doses of the coronavirus vaccine will not have to self-isolate if they test negative for Covid.
But business leaders say the current government rules are causing "anxiety" for many and have urged prime minister Boris Johnson to bring the date forward.
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Steve Magnall, who co-owns Two Magpies Bakery in Darsham, Aldeburgh and Southwold, said: "If we all know people who are double-jabbed won't have to isolate in a few weeks time, why aren't we just doing it?
"If we're trying to desensitise people to the virus then we just need to do that, instead of telling the public they're free and then also advising them to wear masks and socially distance.
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"It's a complete nightmare. I've had five people in one of my sites isolating - which doesn't sound like much but it's our entire front of house team.
"We've had chefs taking orders and vice versa - anything to keep the sites trading."
Nick Mackenzie, chief executive of Bury St Edmunds-based Greene King, said 33 of the chain's pubs had been forced to shut in the past week.
"This is a problem and I think it could get worse. It is disruptive to the business.
"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.”
Bosses at the brewery said there had been no impact on their Bury St Edmunds brewery or head office, however.
Nick Attfield, director of properties at Suffolk brewer Adnams, said around 40 of the 300 staff in his sector of the business were self-isolating.
The Swan Hotel, in Southwold, has been particularly badly affected - with 32 staff having to self-isolate.
That means the hotel could only offer a bed and breakfast service and Mr Attfield's central management team were put to work mixing cocktails and washing up.
Mr Attfield said: "We don't know what will happen next, almost on an hourly basis. As soon as your 'ping' goes, you are told to immediately self-isolate.
"I sit here and watch my phone go off thinking 'who might be next?'. That's no way to run a business."
Mr Attfield said this was the "most challenging" era of the pandemic so far.
"It's just a very difficult situation and the impact is so huge," he said.
"We are in a position where we should be trading really well and really hard. And we just don't know what may change.
"It's the not knowing — the anxiety."
Andy Walker, head of policy and research at the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce, said: "In general we are seeing lots of businesses being impacted by the NHS Covid app to self-isolate.
"The knock-on effect of this is vast with several restaurants, bars and retailers being short-staffed or even having to close.
"Moreover, this will impact nearly every kind of business, especially those in the manufacturing sectors where productivity and output will be vastly reduced, and could hamper the driver shortages we are already witnessing.
"It’s vital that the government and authorities work up a contingency plan before we see a spike of cases in the coming weeks.
"Clearer guidance is needed over the NHS app and whether self-isolation is compulsory by law or advisory.
"Conflicting reports in the media and on the news will just add to the noise and confusion for many businesses and for many, they will still be unsure whether they need to self-isolate despite testing negative.
"The guidance needs to be crystal clear if we are to remain open, active and fully functioning in the coming weeks when we see the number of ‘pings’ increase."
Andrew Mower, Federation of Small Businesses development manager for East Anglia, said: "Given that those at the very top of government were given the choice of rigorous testing in place of self-isolation over the weekend, small business owners who have been hampered by pings will be wondering why they and their staff are not offered the same option.
"Transparency is key here. The government should also explain, in detail, the reasons for ending self-isolation rules for the double vaccinated on August 16, rather than sooner, and investigate whether there is scope to safely bring that key moment forward.
"Small firms should be able to use local authority and government grants as well as furlough to help if a business is unable to operate due to self-isolation rules. Additionally it would help many small firms if they are able to continue using the statutory sick pay rebate at a time when cases are soaring."
However, some employers have not been struck by the 'pingdemic'.
Bosses at Willis Towers Watson, which employs 1,500 people in Ipswich, say they have been largely unaffected as the majority of their staff continue to work from home.