No.10 weighs in after ministers contradict government line on Covid app alerts

Written by Alain Tolhurst on 22 July 2021 in News
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Downing Street contradicts claims from business-focused ministers that adhering to isolation pings is at an individual’s discretion

Credit: PA

Downing Street this week issued a new warning over the need for people to self-isolate if they receive an exposure notification from the NHS Covid-19 app – shortly after a minister said it was "up to individuals and employers" whether they chose to follow advice.

After business minister Paul Scully said being pinged would "allow you to make informed decisions", a No.10 spokesperson was quick to correct the record to emphasise that “it is crucial people isolate when they are told to do so”.

“Isolation remains the most important action people can take to stop the spread of the virus," the spokesperson said.  "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.”

But the messages from government on whether or not people should self-isolate continues to be mixed, amid concerns staff shortages as a result of people self-isolating are affecting the economy.

It is understood that Scully, the small business minister, emphasised the advisory nature of the app’s notifications in a call with hospitality firms last week.


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The Times reported this week that Lord Grimstone of Boscobel, the investment minister, stressed in a letter to one large employer the software was only an “advisory tool” and people were not under any “legal duty” to self-isolate.

Speaking about the issue to Times Radio on Tuesday, Scully echoed that sentiment. "The app is there to allow you to make informed decisions," he said. "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."

Scully avoided giving a definitive answer on whether people should self-isolate if sent a contact alert by the app. 

"We want to encourage people to still use the app to be able to do the right thing, because we estimate it saves around 8,000 lives," he said, but added that it was "up to individuals and employers”.

Hospitality industry group the British Institute of Innkeeping said almost half its members could not recruit enough staff currently, and have been pushing for a “test to release” process for anyone ordered to self-isolate by the app, allowing them to return to work sooner. 

“Guidance from government in this area is unclear and whilst Covid-19 App alerts to self-isolate remain advisory, this is not reflected in other government guidance," a spokesperson said.  

“This is needs rapid attention before the hospitality led recovery grinds to a halt.”

Night Time Industries Association chief executive Michael Kill accused the government of “an absolute shambles”, but immigration minister Chris Philp denied the advice on isolating was a mess, and said the latest statement from No.10 was consistent with messaging so far.

“Paul Scully was commenting on the strict legality, Number 10's message was very clear,” Philp told Times Radio.

But Labour’s shadow health minister Justin Madders accused the government of "making it up as they go along".

"Ministers mix messages, change approach and water down proposals when the public and businesses need clarity and certainty,” Madders said. 

Lib Dem MP Layla Moran, chair of the all-party parliamentary group on coronavirus, also criticised the government's message on isolation.  

“The government has dismantled our defences against the virus and is now busy undermining one of the final tools left in our armoury to fight it," Moran said. “We need urgent clarity from the government to repair the damage being done to public trust and compliance with self-isolation rules.”

 

About the author

Alain Tolhurst is chief reporter for PublicTechnology sister publication PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared. He tweets as @Alain_Tolhurst.

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