Only 13% of testing sites for fully vaccinated critical workers to free themselves from isolation are up and running, Downing Street has admitted.
In an effort to avoid a major hit to the economy due to hundreds of thousands of people needing to quarantine after being identified as a close contact of a positive Covid case, the government set a target of establishing 2,000 sites where critical workers could get tested daily instead of having to isolate.
With the advice to isolate if “pinged” or contacted by test and trace set to fall away after 16 August, ministers heralded the scheme as a way of avoiding further disruption to services including public transport, bin collections and food supply.
No 10 said on Thursday that just 265 testing sites had been established, with a further 800 due to open within the next week – but gave no specific date for when the approximately 1,000 centres remaining would follow suit, raising concerns about whether people would still be unnecessarily forced into isolation.
Statistics released on Thursday showed a record 689,313 people in England and Wales were contacted by the NHS Covid app and asked to self-isolate in the week to 12 July, underlining the widespread disruption caused by surging case rates.
Official data from the app showed an 11.4% increase in the number of people “pinged” over the previous week.
Separate figures published by NHS test and trace showed that 597,260 people in England were identified as coming into close contact with someone who had tested positive in the same week – the highest since January when England was in lockdown.
Ministers have been scrambling to set up the testing sites at workplaces and named which groups of critical workers in certain sectors could be released from quarantine to try to minimise the impact of the “pingdemic”.
With many sectors suffering shortages of staff, business groups and Tory backbenchers had been urging the government to bring forward the 16 August date on which adults who have received two vaccine doses can take a test instead of quarantining. At that point children will also be exempt from the requirement to quarantine if they are identified as close contacts.
But the prime minister said on Wednesday that date was now “nailed on” and Downing Street said it was clear there would be no earlier change.
When the change happens, both adults and children will be advised to take PCR tests. If the result is negative, they can go about their lives as normal.
While the contact-testing centres only offer quick-turnaround lateral flow tests, the government said these would still be useful for those critical workers who had not had both vaccines and were identified as a close contact of a positive Covid case, letting them use the tests to be released from their advised isolation.
Johnson’s spokesperson rejected a suggestion by Sir John Bell, regius professor of medicine at Oxford University, who said he would have replaced the isolation programme for close contacts with a test-to-release system from January this year.
Downing Street said isolation and testing were both important measures to break chains of transmission of the virus.
Johnson’s spokesperson also said he “sympathises” with companies whose workers were being forced to isolate, and appreciated the impact it was having on the economy.
However, he suggested that pleas for more employees to be included on the critical workers list would not be taken up.
The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders had urged the government to exempt those working in carmaking, after the number of vehicles built plummeted to its lowest level since 1953 – barring 2020 – something it blamed on the “pingdemic”.
The latest quarantine data covers a period before a recent run of decline in new Covid cases, with new positive tests almost halving. Downing Street will be watching the evolution of new cases closely over the coming days, with hopes rising that the third wave may be starting to peak.
The health secretary, Sajid Javid, said on Wednesday that “no one really knows” how the pandemic would progress from here.
“The truth is, when it comes to case numbers no one really knows where they are going to go next,” he said. “I hope that the falls that we’re seeing now are sustained. That’s of course what I want to see. But we’ve already seen with the Delta variant, a new variant that emerged over the last year that’s more infectious than the previous one, that things can change.”
Javid and Johnson were widely criticised for pressing ahead with the 19 July reopening, with almost all restrictions lifted, in the face of surging cases. Both were in self-isolation themselves, Javid with confirmed Covid, on the day.