- The UK is facing significant disruption across its economy as coronavirus cases mount under Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s re-opening plan. The country is regularly reporting around 50,000 COVID-19 cases each day, with daily figures still on the rise.
- According to the latest data, approximately 618,000 people nationwide have been instructed to self-isolate following possible exposure to the virus, leading to staffing shortages across the economy.
- Supermarkets across the country have warned of product shortages, largely caused by isolating staff and a wider lack of hauliers. Retailers affected include the Co-op, Iceland, Lidl, and Sainsbury’s.
- Fuel stations have also reported disruption to supplies, with BP petrol stations reporting shortages of unleaded petrol and diesel. BP said a ‘handful’ of stations had closed temporarily, although the ‘vast majority’ of shortages were being resolved within a day.
- Staff shortages have also hampered essential public services. Dozens of councils have suspended waste collection, several London underground services were halted, while Dorset Police have warned that callers may face longer waits due to control room staff absences.
- In response to widespread staff shortages, the UK government announced on Friday (23 July) that essential workers, including supermarket depot employees and food manufacturers, would be exempt from the isolating rules and can instead take daily COVID-19 tests.
- Internationally, the UK has also faced growing criticism and isolation over its re-opening moves despite high case numbers. On Thursday (22 July), Australia and New Zealand pulled out of this autumn’s Rugby League World Cup, set to be hosted in England, amid concerns over player welfare and safety linked to COVID-19. US authorities, moreover, have warned against travel to the UK, while in the past week, Bulgaria and Denmark have moved to ban most travellers from the UK.
The Co-op is among several retailers reporting production shortages / Shutterstock.com
- The disruption seen across the UK is largely due to the speed and extent of the relaxation of coronavirus restrictions, despite high vaccination rates nationwide.
- On Monday (19 July), for example, the UK government lifted almost all of England’s remaining coronavirus restrictions, with Johnson repeatedly labelling the occasion as ‘Freedom Day’. Legal requirements for the usage of a face covering in most indoor spaces and on public transport were lifted, while restrictions on large events were removed.
- Johnson’s administration has repeatedly prioritised economic considerations over public health concerns, according to highly critical statements from his former chief advisor, Dominic Cummings. The UK, for example, was one of the last major European countries to impose its first lockdown and was slow to ban travel from India in spring 2021, facilitating the spread of the Delta variant.
- While devolved administrations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have largely followed a more cautious re-opening, all have high or rising case rates.
- The decision to remove restrictions despite increasing cases of the virus has been widely criticised by scientists. More than 1,200 scientists signed a letter to The Lancet medical journal warning the decision could lead to the development of vaccine-resistant coronavirus variants, while England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, warned that coronavirus hospitalisations could soon reach ‘scary numbers’. The UK’s approach, therefore, has serious implications well beyond its borders, with any potential new variants emerging from the country almost certain to spread internationally.
- The re-opening, moreover, also appears increasingly misjudged from an economic perspective. Supply-chain disruption is hampering activity throughout the economy, while high case levels and hospitalisations may necessitate the reimposition of restrictions, particularly as winter-linked demand for health services increases.
Despite its high vaccination rate, the UK is witnessing a surge in coronavirus cases / Shutterstock.com
- Corporates operating in the UK should closely monitor epidemiological trends and coronavirus-related restrictions. Businesses should be mindful of policy differences between the UK government and devolved administrations, ensuring company policies comply with rules applied in each jurisdiction. Staff should also note that many businesses have imposed their own rules, particularly regarding the use of face masks in indoors spaces.
- Businesses are strongly advised to prioritise the health and wellbeing of their staff, clients and partners. Workplace measures such as the usage of face coverings, social distancing and capacity limits should be maintained, while staff reporting symptoms of the virus should get tested and remain away from the office.
- Staff are notified that travel from the UK to some destinations overseas is likely to become increasingly difficult as countries with more cautious governments ban UK travellers, including those who are fully vaccinated.
- Organisations planning staff travel to the UK should assess its necessity and may wish to consider deferring travel until case rates decrease. Organisations planning events in the UK should anticipate withdrawals related to the country’s epidemiological status.