The government has set up only 200 of a planned 2,000 Covid testing sites intended to counter “pingdemic” disruption by helping key workers in the food sector avoid the need to self-isolate.
Fully vaccinated staff in food manufacturing, processing plants and distribution depots are now able to avoid quarantine if they are tested daily and found to be negative, even if they have been notified that they have come into contact with a Covid case by the NHS app.
Supermarket distribution depots were the first to get the new testing centres, with 15 set up last week. A total of 500 food supply chain sites have now been contacted by the government, which intends to set up 2,000 testing facilities for all key workers by the end of August.
The Department of Health said more than 200 were now carrying out tests but it expected to have 1,200 in total set up over the next few days. A further 800 should be in place by the end of August when the sites could continue to be used to test people in the workplace.
Defra said that just 200,000 tests were being sent out to testing centres on Monday – which would be enough for about 40,000 people on each weekday, or less than half of the 100,000 a day target. Staff cannot avoid self-isolation by taking a test unless their workplace is operating a testing centre.
Supermarkets appeared to have few sites already active. Sainsbury’s said on Wednesday it had three depot testing sites up and running, Asda has none and Iceland said it was unlikely to open any, having described the process as too “bureaucratic”. Tesco declined to say how many it had opened.
Richard Walker, the managing director of Iceland, accused the government of coming up with a “pointless solution” as it did not include grocery shop workers.
He said that Iceland had seen a decline in the number of workers getting notifications to self-isolate by the NHS app, but he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that this could be because they had begun deleting it from their phones.
Iceland workers were “law abiding”, said Walker, but the group had started to see a drop off in people saying they had received a notification, possibly because employees did not want to cancel summer holiday plans.
“With sick pay used up and peak holiday season it feels to me like potentially people are starting to delete the app in numbers we have not seen previously,” he said.
James Bielby, chief executive of the Federation of Wholesale Distribution (FWD) which supplies food to outlets other than supermarkets, said the new scheme would be relatively easy to set up for big companies which were already testing their workers.
But he said it would not be possible for many smaller businesses, which may not have the space or resources available to carry out mass testing on their premises, to join the new scheme.