With Covid-19 restrictions lifted in England this week, retailers and other businesses are facing an unrestricted operating environment alongside the continued presence of the virus.
This is causing a number of concerns, especially in terms of the availability of staff while the NHS track and trace app is ‘pinging’ people and telling them to self-isolate if they have been exposed to the virus. Midcounties Co-op is among businesses which have warned about the impact of the situation; the society says it is especially having an impact on its childcare arm.
The government had said that critical workers, who have been fully vaccinated for at least two weeks, will be able to leave their isolation to travel to work and do their jobs but must remain at home in isolation otherwise.
But today it announced that it will not draw up a list of critical jobs that will be exempt from full self-isolation if workers are contacted bu the app. Instead, employers will have to apply to government departments to allow workers to effectively circumvent the rules.
The latest development comes despite calls from business leaders for more clarity – including Rose Marley, chief executive of Co-operatives UK, in a BBC Newsnight interview last week.
Ms Marley warned there has been a “significant increase in number of people being notified by the app to self isolate”, but often “it doesn’t seem to make much sense why you’re being notified”.
“It is a real problem for our members – 7,000 co-ops worth £40bn,” she said, “right through retail, funeral services, digital data, sports clubs and venues, and everybody is reporting a significant increase in number of people being notified by the app to self isolate.”
For those who have been fully vaccinated with clear lateral flow tests, the guidance is not clear on what they should do next, she added.
Employers can make an investigation and check their CCTV to see if a staff member does need to self isolate but the guidance on this is not clear enough, Ms Marley said – and the investigation process is time consuming and expensive.
She said it is important to continue track and trace measures – but warned that some businesses are asking people people to turn the app off because it is not sensitive enough. For instance, for an organisation occupying several floors of a building, the app does not recognise that the problem affects only one floor.
On the Co-operatives UK website, Ms Marley added: “Because our members are co-ops and they care about their staff, many have very generous pay arrangements in place. They don’t want to see colleagues adversely affected by having to isolate so most are paying 100% of salaries.
“They then have to backfill staff on top of this pay, sometimes drafting in colleagues from other parts of the business who may be paid overtime. Some of the largest co-ops are going to face quite substantial wage bills this quarter, way over and above their normal costs, just for doing the right thing.”
Midcounties says the situation is “a real and urgent issue for us – particularly in our childcare sector … we are suffering with increasing numbers of childcare colleagues being “pinged” and having to self-isolate.
“This is now causing both us and the whole sector really serious immediate disruption, impacting our ability to maintain ratios. This is likely to result in settings having to temporarily close.
“Last week nearly 40 colleagues were self-isolating – double the previous week – and we’re struggling to get hold of temporary agency staff to backfill.”
Midcounties is also concerned that the government has indicated that its focus on exemptions will be on certain workers in the food industry, utilities, border staff and the NHS, “but there is no mention of blanket exemption for childcare and early years provision”, and that the list of critical workers will not be as broad as the previous key workers.
Co-operatives UK is urging members to contact its advice team if they are unsure of what to do if multiple colleagues are contacted, “to continue ensuring the app is part of their armoury in the fight against this persistent and disruptive virus”.
And retail co-ops – in a sector which has been on the frontline of the pandemic – are continuing efforts to protect staff and customers in a post-lockdown environment, with the government removing rules on masks.
A spokesperson for the Co-op Group said: “Our priority is to provide a safe shopping and working environment for our customers and colleagues and we will continue to follow official guidelines from the UK government and, governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
“In England, we will support customers and colleagues who choose to wear a face covering for the protection of others and encourage all shoppers to be respectful of people’s personal space when in the store.
“Perspex screens at till points and store entrance sanitising cleaning stations will remain in place at all of our stores.”
A spokesperson for Southern Co-operative added: “While the government has announced the relaxation of some measures, the health and safety of our colleagues and customers, as it has throughout the pandemic, remains our priority.
“For that reason, we’ll be encouraging colleagues to wear face coverings on the shop floor and asking customers to consider the same although we won’t be making this a mandatory requirement, asking all to respect one another’s personal choice.”
Central England Co-op said checkout screens, and sanitiser stations will stay in place with free masks on offer, but one-way systems will be removed. Colleagues and customers will be “strongly encouraged” to continue to wear face coverings when visiting stores.
Store signage will be relaunched with a new message ‘stay safe and leave a space’ and would advise people to continue to keep a safe distance from colleagues and customers where possible, it added.
Funeral homes colleagues, and families, will continue to be asked to wear a face covering and keep to the two-metre distance rule whenever possible, and plastic screens will remain in limousines. Hand sanitiser stations will remain in place.
Funeral arrangements can be made over the phone or via email, but there will also be the option to make an appointment in person, with rigorous cleaning and hygiene processes continued to keep funeral homes safe.
Regular contact with families will take place in relation to any potential restrictions in terms of funeral services
CEO Debbie Robinson said: “Nothing is more important to us all at Central England Cooperative than the health and safety of our colleagues and customers.
“We want to say a big thank you to our customers for their understanding and helping us to keep themselves and our colleagues safe during this pandemic.
“We are confident that we have taken all the necessary precautionary steps and today we are asking our customers and members to continue to be considerate to others at this uncertain time, follow in store messaging and Government guidance and shop responsibly.”
The retailer has also re-issued its plea for people to show ‘care, compassion and respect’ to its colleagues as they continue to work around the clock to serve their communities. Loss prevention manager Craig Goldie said: “During these uncertain times we all having to adapt but one thing that remains constant for us here at Central England Co-op is our zero tolerance towards all types of crime.
“We want people to ask themselves whether they would like their relatives to be confronted by someone in a violent or aggressive way – the answer is no and therefore why should our colleagues or anyone who works in retail have to even consider facing up to this kind of behaviour.”